Don't just apply to college… Position yourself.

First “College List” Question: Private versus Public University

“A university is what a college becomes when the faculty loses interest in students.” – John Ciardi.

Man at desk in shirt and tie holding his head and worrying about money and the economy.

It’s no secret that the rise in the cost of an American college education has outpaced inflation for decades. A compelling summary by reveals a 1.5 ratio of tuition inflation to general inflation circa 1975; that ratio grew to 2.0 in 2005. According to College Board’s 2015-16 Trends in Higher Education, the average price of tuition and fees at private non-profit four-year colleges and universities for 2015-16 was $32,405 (this number does not include room and board, and many private schools’ tuition and fees are considerably more). In contrast, the average price of tuition and fees for in-state students at public four-year institutions was $9,410.

College Board’s study points out that public universities’ costs are rising at approximately the same the rate as private colleges. However, the state institution price tag, on an absolute basis, still looks a heck of a lot better to most middle income families than the private college sticker price.

collegecoins I ask client families one straightforward question in our first session: “Are you including public universities in your college list?” It is crucial to get both parents and student on the same page from Day One. Nothing is more frustrating to a teenager who has been posturing to his or her peers about the prestigious private colleges he or she intends on pursuing, only to be told halfway through the college process that the more likely destination is State U. Some parents do not realize until halfway through the process that they make too much money to qualify for government need-based financial aid, but they cannot afford a $250K+ private college tuition, fees, room and board bill for one child.

computermomboySo I ask the question. A lively, sometimes fiery, discussion follows. There may be disappointment on both sides, if attending an elite private college was a dream for parent or child. The familiar roles of parent as the “realistic, purse holding, we-know-best dreamstealer,” versus child as the “why not? impractical pipedreamer” painfully kick in now. It is the adolescent’s inevitable confrontation with adult reality that feels like some kind of a betrayal. It is the weighty realization that the great college adventure of self-discovery will cost plenty, and a full-pay private education will saddle the young adult with debt or severely impact the parents’ retirement plan.

I listen as the universal play progresses, occasionally offering sober insights like a one-person Greek chorus. I explain that it is a “difficult but necessary conversation,” and it is best for all involved if “it happens earlier rather than later.” 

daddaughtercounselorIt is generally not a black-and-white decision. The family usually compromises by including public in-state and out-of-state universities, a few more reasonably priced private institutions, or private schools offering institutional merit scholarships that the student may have a good chance at earning. For example, many colleges offer academic merit scholarships to applicants whose academic credentials are slightly higher than the average accepted student at that college, and some offer merit awards for special talents in the performing or visual arts, science or writing. Generally, your family will probably pay somewhat less than the “sticker price” for tuition, so initial cost comparisons are not always accurate.

Conversely, many students prefer a state university from the outset of the process, especially if they love spectator sports and the idea of a large, exciting college town. In fact, sometimes a student who needs a close-knit college environment for academic success will, ironically, demand to attend a public institution.

If a public institution is clearly the way to go, here are some ways to create a more close-knit “private school” experience within a public setting:

campushappy1. Apply to an honors college within a state university. An honors college is an elite school within a diverse, multi-collegiate institutional setting that includes  colleges of arts and sciences, business, and engineering, typically under its own dean, with higher admissions standards. It may be large by private liberal arts college standards, but it certainly creates a “smaller world” than the rest of the university. A quality honors program requires a senior thesis or challenging capstone project. Wikipedia provides a comprehensive list of U.S. honors colleges.

rotundaatnight2. Apply to a highly ranked public university.  In U.S. News & World Reports’ 2019 Rankings, the top ten public institutions rank as follows: UCLA, UC-Berkeley, University of Virginia, University of Michigan, UC-Santa Barbara, UNC-Chapel Hill, UC-Irvine, Georgia Tech, University of Florida, and College of William & Mary, Openness to, and tuition costs for, out-of-state applicants vary by institution and state.

3. Apply to an elite, small-sized public school campus. One excellent example is SUNY Geneseo, with 5,600 undergraduates, middle 50 percent SATs of 1290-1380, known as New York’s public honors college or the “Ivy of the SUNYs.” Another small public gem is The College of New Jersey, with 6,580 undergraduates, a student-faculty ratio of 13:1 and an average SAT of 1270. Both are considered “Best Public School Values” by Kiplingers.

4. Apply to a small-to-medium-sized, highly ranked program in a public university. The best examples are undergraduate business and engineering programs, which are much smaller than schools of arts and science, and tend to have tightly framed curricula that create tightly knit cohort group camaraderie. Other examples include nursing or rehabilitative services, BFA (Bachelor of Fine Arts) performing or visual arts programs, and architecture programs.

blondebusinessgirlPublic university undergraduate business majors can enjoy a manageably-sized college experience in some of the best business programs in the country. For example, University of Michigan’s Ross School, ranking fourth in undergraduate business programs, had an undergraduate enrollment of 1,510 in Fall 2014. U Michigan Ann Arbor’s total undergraduate enrollment for 2015-16 is 28K, with out-of-state tuition and fees of $43K and total annual costs estimated at $57K. U Michigan is more expensive for out-of-state students than most top public universities, but it is still a good example; for comparison, NYU’s Stern School of Business, ranking fifth in undergraduate programs, has a total estimated annual cost of $70K.

roboticsPublic university undergraduate engineering majors can also enjoy a manageably-sized college experience in leading programs. For example, Georgia Tech, ranking fifth in undergraduate engineering programs, had an undergraduate enrollment of 2,052 in its largest engineering school, Mechanical Engineering, in Fall 2014 (total undergrad enrollment for the College of Engineering was 9,253).  Georgia Institute of Technology’s total undergrad enrollment for 2015-16 is 1$4.6K, with out-of-state tuition and fees of $32K and total annual costs estimated at $46K. For comparison, Carnegie Mellon, ranking sixth in undergraduate engineering, has a total estimated annual cost of  $66K.

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And don’t forget, if your son or daughter attends a public university, there will be more money left over for study abroad programs, unpaid internships that may be crucial to building experience in one’s field, graduate or professional school, younger siblings’ education, weddings, empty nest travel, and oh, yes, retirement.


Related reading: Debt-Free U: How I Paid for a College Education without Loans, Scholarships or Mooching Off My Parents by Zac Bissonette; The College Solution: A Guide for Everyone Looking for the Right School at the Right Price (2nd Ed.) by Lynn O’Shaughnessy. Web sites and blogs include:, and