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Public vs. Private Universities or Liberal Arts Colleges

“A prudent question is one-half of wisdom.” – Francis Bacon.

daddaughtercounselorAs a college consultant, I ask clients in our first meeting if they wish to consider public or private universities or liberal arts colleges, a question which I feel should be asked before all others when developing one’s college list. Students usually give me a blank stare. Parents either recoil in horror, if they are already convinced that Ivies are the only acceptable choice, or they brighten with relief that they may be able to steer their kid to a Big Ten school and afford retirement. There are many other distinctions between these three types of institutions besides cost, so let me enlighten you!

1. Public Universities. In the U.S., most public institutions are state universities founded and operated by state governments. Every state has at least one public university.

2. Private Universities. In the U.S., many universities and colleges are private, operated as educational and research nonprofit organizations. The term “university” is primarily used to designate graduate education and research institutions.

3. Liberal Arts Colleges. A liberal arts college is a college or university that either focuses on a general knowledge curriculum, or is in contrast to professional, vocational, or technical studies. While most liberal arts colleges are private, there are some public liberal arts colleges as well.

collegecoinsPrivate vs. Public: Cost. Public university tuition is less expensive for in-state students than out-of-state students. However, public school tuition, even for out-of-state students, is far less expensive than tuition for students at private institutions.  To illustrate, the 2015-2016 tuition & fees for an in-state student at State University of New York Binghamton costs $8,981 per year, and for an out-of-state student $22,101 (Kiplingers ranks Binghamton one of the top ten U.S. out-of-state public school values). With room & board of $13,820, the annual attendance cost for an in-state student is $22,801. SUNY’s smart marketers compare these costs to a private university, with approximate tuition & fees at $39,150, room & board $12,000 and an annual cost of attendance $51,150. That said, families generally will pay less than sticker price for private colleges and universities due to the application of institutional scholarships, which can be generous if the school has a strong endowment and the student has exceptional academic merit or special talents.

Private vs. Public: Academic Quality and the Undergraduate Experience. Is there an educational quality trade-off  between public and private universities?

UTAustinPublic universities figure prominently in U.S. News & World Report‘s 2015 rankings of the top 50 national universities. These rankings are based on seven broad categories of academic quality: peer assessment; retention and graduation of students; faculty resources; student selectivity; financial resources; alumni giving; graduation rate performance; and high school counselor ratings. The public universities in the top fifty national universities include: UC Berkeley, UCLA, U Virginia, U Michigan, UNC Chapel Hill, William & Mary, Georgia Tech, UC San Diego, UC Davis, UC Santa Barbara, UC Irvine, U Washington, U Texas Austin, U Wisconsin Madison, Penn State, and U Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

However, attending a public university will require trade-offs in the quality of the undergraduate experience, such as larger class sizes. Public institutions in the top fifty have a percentage of classes with under 20 students ranging from 30 to 60 percent; many of these smaller classes at large public institutions are limited to upperclassmen. For perspective, private institutions in the top fifty have a percentage of classes with under 20 students ranging from 47 to 80 percent and may begin as early as freshman year.

studentstreeUniversity vs. Liberal Arts College: The Undergraduate Experience. Generally, a university is a good choice for pursuing a field that is centered in its own professional school, such as engineering, business, or nursing. However, a university is by definition a research institution, so the faculty focus will be on research, not teaching undergrads. The “publish or perish” phenomenon and its unfortunate impact on the undergraduate experience is insightfully articulated in Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses by Richard Alum. Class size is likely to be somewhat larger in a university setting (even in a private institution). The U.S. News & World Report’s 2015 rankings show that privates in the top fifty national universities have a percentage of classes with under 20 students ranging from 47 to 80 percent, vs. 57 to 96 percent for the top fifty national liberal arts colleges.

admissionsspeakerDifferences in the Admissions Process for Public vs. Private Insitutions. My post, What Is Important to Colleges? Top Ten Factors, examines Admissions Trends Surveys from the National Association of College Admission Counseling (NACAC) State of College Admission 2014 Report. I describe the ten factors that drew the highest percentage of surveyed institutions attributing “considerable importance” to each factor’s impact on admissions decisions. Here, I will describe the differences in responses of publics vs. privates to the admission decision impact of each factor.

asianinterviewGrades and test scores were the key factors in both types of institutions, but there were relative differences. GPA in college prep courses was viewed as having “considerable importance” on admissions decisions by 80 percent of private vs. 84 percent of public institutions. Strength of curriculum was important to 67% of privates vs. 58% of publics. Admissions testing was important to 50 percent of privates vs. 70 percent of publics. Given the huge number of applicants vs. admissions staff in public universities, it makes sense that quantitative measures of achievement were cited as of “considerable importance” more in publics vs. privates. Public universities claim to be shifting toward holistic admissions, but that shift will be labor-intensive and will not happen overnight. In contrast, most schools that have joined the “test optional” movement are private. Private institutions placed more importance on the essay (26 vs. 14 percent in public universities), extracurricular activities (10 vs. 8 percent), portfolio (8 vs. 2 percent), and interview (10 vs. 2 percent). Generally, privates placed more importance on holistic, qualitative measures that are more labor-intensive to assess.

So there are plenty of differences between public and private institutions, and between universities and liberal arts colleges. Deciding which of these three paths to take is a fundamental one that will deeply impact your young adult’s undergraduate experience.