Public versus Private: Weighing Your Options

You can get a rich and vibrant college education at a public institution, just as you can at a private one. But the experiences will often differ in significant ways, in terms of cost, available financial aid, campus resources, and more. Each option involves trade-offs, so you need to educate yourself on what those are and have a clear understanding of what you are signing up for before you make a commitment.

Cost and Financial Aid

People often think of public college campuses as more cost-effective alternatives to private colleges and universities and, yes, that sometimes holds true. Let’s compare, for example, two California schools, UCLA (public) and USC (private).

School/CostTuition/FeesRoom/BoardAverage Financial
Aid Award
Total Cost without
Aid
Total with Aid
UCLA (in-state)$19,168$17,599$18,808$36,767$17,959
UCLA (out-of-state)$48,922$17,599Not available$66,521Not available
USC$63,626$15,437$53,612$79,063$25,451
Cost breakdown: UCLA versus USC

As you can see from the table above, California residents, even before receiving any financial aid, automatically benefit from a more than 50% discount if they attend UCLA over USC, a comparable private alternative. For in-state residents who can afford full tuition, a public option offers a highly cost-effective choice. Even out-of-state residents who attend UCLA save about 12% over the cost of enrolling at USC.

Financial aid, however, often acts as the cost equalizer between public and private schools, especially for out-of-state students. Let’s again take a look at UCLA (public) and USC (private). First, the UC system only awards financial aid to in-state residents. Those coming to the UC system from out of state may qualify for federal financial aid, like Pell Grants, but will not receive any school-based grants. The average financial aid award at USC so dramatically outpaces the average at UCLA – almost three times as much – that USC almost looks like a competitive financial option for in-state residents and certainly looks that way for those attending from out of state. How much you benefit from the less expensive tuition on a public college or university campus thus depends on whether you are enrolling as an in-state or out-of-state resident, combined with whether or not you will receive financial aid. I think about it as a matrix:

Status/Type of CollegePublicPrivate
In-state/average FinAid+++++
In-state/NO FinAid++
Out-of-state/average FinAid+++
Out-of-state/NO FinAid+
How the financial deals compare: Public versus private

Campus Resources

Both public and private college and university campuses offer their students a rich array of resources, including world-renowned faculty and guest speakers; extensive classrooms, research labs, and athletic fields; and a diverse array of course offerings and non-academic pursuits. An established, elite public university will offer far more than a small private college operating on a shoestring budget can. That said, even a well known and well resourced public institution will have difficulty measuring up to a comparable private institution. UCLA struck me as expansive, lush, and beautiful. USC, however, looked like something shiny and new that had just come straight out of a box with a ribbon on top. Wealthy private institutions, in fact, boast enhanced resources that go beyond the surface. USC has an 8:1 faculty ratio compared to UCLA’s that comes in at 18:1 – more than double USC’s. In fact, the UC system has a reputation for overcrowding, both in the dorms and in the classroom.

Demographics

Generally speaking, the population of public campuses skews towards people from the local area. At UCLA, 75% of first-year students come from California. Compare that to USC’s 44% representation of Californians in the first-year class and you see a pretty stark contrast.

I have used UCLA and USC as examples of public and private institutions for the purpose of this comparison. That said, both public and private colleges and universities come in many different shapes and sizes. Copper Mountain Community College in Joshua Tree, California, and UCLA – both public institutions – enroll about 1,700 and 32,000 students respectively. College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, Maine, and USC – both private institutions – enroll about 350 and 20,000 students respectively. You will find exceptions to whatever generalizations you make about public and private colleges and universities. That said, certain rules of thumb generally hold true:

  • Public campuses cost less for in-state than for out-of-state students.
  • Public campuses offer more generous financial aid to in-state rather than to out-of-state students.
  • The largest plurality of students on a public campus (if not the majority) will come from that school’s city and/or state.
  • Once you factor in financial aid awards, private campuses could actually cost less than their public counterparts.
  • When you compare public and private schools of similar size and ranking, public colleges and universities will often have higher student-to-teacher ratios and average class sizes.
  • Public institutions will often suffer from overcrowding in both classrooms and dorms, especially relative to their private counterparts of similar size and ranking.

You can get a great education at either a public or private college or university. You just have to look carefully at your options to understand what you are getting with each, how they compare, and which feels like a better fit for you.