4 Cost Considerations for Public and Private Colleges

May 7th 2016

Deciding between a public and private university can be difficult because both have benefits and drawbacks. Most public universities are less expensive, but that can be outweighed by financial aid and hardship grants.

Basic Costs

Public funding means public universities are generally significantly less expensive. The average cost of tuition at private universities is more than twice the amount of a public college. Additional expenses, such as dormitory living, can vary significantly, although again, public colleges are usually approximately half as expensive as private colleges. Private colleges often have better name recognition, which may translate to better earning power later. However, there are some public colleges with similar prestige, such as the University of California, Berkeley. Private universities also tend to have smaller class sizes and a higher ratio of teachers to students, which may help some students learn better.

In-State Tuition

Many students benefit from in-state tuition at public universities, which drastically lowers the cost of a college education. Even out-of-state students usually save money by attending public colleges when compared to private ones, but in-state students essentially get a built-in scholarship because their taxes are used to support the school. On the other hand, private colleges usually cost the same regardless of where the student lives. Local students may be able to save money by living with their parents instead of in a dorm or apartment, but otherwise they pay the same as out-of-state students.

Financial Aid

Financial aid is the great equalizer, and it is in effect at both public and private universities. Federal aid, such as Pell grants, can usually be applied to any accredited institution. Many colleges also offer their own hardship programs, which lower tuition for low-income students. Private colleges sometimes have more extensive hardship programs because of their higher costs. Some scholarships can also only be applied at a particular college, usually a private one. However, there are plenty of scholarships available for most students. Students can pay for their remaining tuition with student loans at both public and private colleges, but they may enter the workforce with significantly less debt if they choose a public school.

Choosing a School

In general, the differences between public and private universities are usually fairly small. Students should look at specific schools with good programs for their desired major, and then decide what they can afford. Students without a clear idea of what they want to do may do better starting at a public school or even a community college. Most schools have financial counselors available to help incoming students determine what they can afford.


When deciding on a college, it is important to weigh many factors. The quality of the program, extracurricular activities and location are all important concerns, but as tuition prices increase, cost can be the determining factor for many students.

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