Public Vs Private Universities

Submitted by ashley on Sun, 03/13/2011 - 12:36am

Over dinner the other night, one of my married friends joked that she would have to decline this year’s ski trip invitation because she and her husband were starting to save money for a college fund. She’s 26 years old and doesn’t even have children yet. Although my initial impulse was to laugh, I realized their overzealous financial planning has some merit.


College tuition has always represented a formidable expense in people’s minds, but up until a few years ago, there were a number of ways to defray the costs. Scholarships seemed abundant, and many schools, Princeton in particular, were developing need-based financial aid programs that gave, rather than lent money to their students. Thus, it was possible to graduate from an elite university completely debt free (assuming you had the academic chops to qualify).


Public universities were also a popular, cost-effective option for students. If you could claim residency in a particular state, you benefitted from not only an exponentially higher admissions rate, but also substantially reduced costs. In Michigan, California, Virginia and North Carolina, that meant access to some of the best schools in the country. Unfortunately, the game is changing.


Earlier this week, I posted a New York Times article entitled, “Public Universities Relying More On Tuition Than State Money.” This piece insinuated that the heyday of public research universities was drawing to a close. These schools are no longer bargains, as tuition costs increase yearly and grants are harder to come by.


I mention this because many parents ask me whether checking the “yes, I will be applying for financial aid” box on their children’s applications will affect the chances of admission. I tell them that if they can pay college themselves, they absolutely should; after all, the universities desperately need money. Schools have always been notoriously open to “development” cases, students whose families can fund a new gymnasium or science lab, but now, an applicant who can simply pay tuition may be favored as well.


Of course, there are multiple other factors at play: whether you apply in the early or regular decision pool, where you live, your gender, ethnicity, area(s) of interest and institutional need. For truly need-blind elite schools, there is no downside to indicating that one may need aid—either you qualify or you don't—but you need to know which are truly need blind, as opposed to need aware. There's a different read even within similarly selective colleges -- e.g. the Ivies or Little Ivies, and this is also an issue at the top state schools.


The bottom line is this: start planning as early as you can. The article warns that, “the era of affordable four-year public universities, heavily subsidized by the state, may be over,” and you don’t want to be priced out of an education.