Nov 11

Public vs Private Universities-Why I Chose the Latter

sorry-chose-such-expensive-college-ecard-someecards*edited to fix the post title from “later” to “latter”-reasons I shouldn’t write posts in the middle of the night 😉 thanks for catching that Harry

Recently I’ve received a few e-mails from readers telling me that they’re choosing between public and private universities and aren’t sure which one makes the most sense for them. I’m certainly not an expert in this area (aside from my own person experience), but there are a few factors I took into consideration when I chose my own private universities:

1. Tuition Cost

Actually, I’m lying. When I sent out my college applications, I didn’t consider tuition cost at all. I applied to the schools I wanted to go to regardless of how big the “bill” would be. I mean, if I got into Harvard, I’d go regardless of the cost, right? I didn’t actually apply to Harvard, but I did apply to some very expensive private universities. Curious why a frugal gal like me didn’t care about tuition cost? Well…because of #2.

2. Scholarships

Applying for scholarships was practically my full-time job when I was a senior in college. Most schools I applied to had one standard scholarship application which made things a little easier (I started college in 2001, I’m not sure if that’s still the case today?). Once had my list of acceptances, I figured out how much it would cost me to attend each university.

Tuition costs, room & board and fees – scholarships and grants = total cost of attendance

Some people think that private universities are more expensive than public universities, and they are right most of the time! BUT when you take into account the scholarships that are offered by many private universities, the cost of attendance might surprise you (in a good way!). Friends are usually shocked when I tell them that I was able to attend my private undergraduate university for cheaper than I would have been able to attend my in-state university (the University of Maine). Don’t automatically assume that you can’t afford to attend a school based on the tuition cost listed in the view book!

3. School Size

I grew up in a very small town and attended a very small high school (350 students in the whole school, grades 9-12). If I had gone to the University of Maine, or another huge university, I would have been completely lost. I didn’t want to be a “number” in a huge lecture hall and I didn’t want to have to take shuttles around my university. Being at a smaller school made it easier for me to make friends, get to know my professors and transition into living away from home for the first time.

4.Location, Location, Location

Location was important for me for several reasons. First, there aren’t a lot of jobs available in my hometown or any of the surrounding areas. For that reason, (and many others) I chose not to apply to the University of Maine. Second, I knew I didn’t want to stay in Maine after graduation, so it didn’t make sense to make professional connections with people in an area that I planned to leave. Third, I wanted to be closer to a major city. Growing up in a very secluded fishing village, I felt I was missing out on a lot of the cultural activities that people in and around the city were experiencing.

Bottom-line: Do your own due diligence!

The things that were important to me might not be important to you. Get out a notebook and make a “needs and wants” list. Your local in-state university might be a steal of a deal with an adorable campus that suits you perfectly. Or you maybe you grew up in the heart of the city and can’t imagine going to a small private school in the country.

Either way, the school with the best price tag might not be the best choice (yes I’m really writing that!). Carefully weigh the pros and cons of choosing a university based solely on price. I’m not saying that you should choose an uber expensive university just because you “like it” and want to go there. But if a slightly more expensive university provides an atmosphere that you’ll thrive in, it might be worth considering.

I received a full-scholarship to a private university and when I visited the campus I knew I wouldn’t be comfortable there. Instead I chose another private university that offered me a smaller scholarship, but had everything I wanted in terms of location, size, majors offered etc. I might have graduated without debt if I’d chosen the first university, but I also might have dropped out because I wasn’t happy there. Certainly something I’ve thought about over the years.

Did you chose a private or public university? What helped you make the decision?



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  1. I went to a public university. Honestly, when I was applying for schools, public or private wasn’t really a factor for me. When it was actually time to pick a school, I felt I would get a quality education at a public school for the fraction of the price. Also, I’m the exact opposite – I went to a very large high school (4000 students) so I felt I would’ve been most comfortable at a large public university.

      • KK on November 12, 2013 at 1:20 pm
      • Reply

      Makes total sense. It’s all about your surroundings and what makes you comfortable. My undergraduate school had less than 3000 students, so a high school with 4000 would have been completely overwhelming for me as an 18 year old.

    • E.M. on November 11, 2013 at 11:52 am
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    I went to community college for my first year so that I’d only have to spend three years at whatever college I attended next. After a lot of consideration I went to a private college, but it was a commuter school, so it was cheaper in the fact that there was no room and board. I lived with my parents and only had to pay for tuition and books. I do agree that it’s worth it to consider all options as you never know what scholarships you may get. Location is another thing to factor in. Huge campuses kind of overwhelmed me too, and I knew I didn’t want to be one of three hundred in a lecture hall. Good advice!

      • KK on November 12, 2013 at 1:23 pm
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      Super smart to do a year of community college first! Also smart to stay at home to save on room and board. Just proof that you have to consider your own personal circumstances and there’s not “one size fits all approach to college”.

  2. Like you I cared about fit for my goals and overall cost to me. For that, I ended up at sa small honors program within a larger public university with a great scholarship. It was a nice balance.

      • KK on November 12, 2013 at 1:27 pm
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      Sounds like a really nice fit. Also something good to consider with big universities (is there the smaller club or program or culture that you would fit into). I probably could have gone to a bigger school if I felt connected to a smaller group of people (my grad school was huge and I did just fine because my program and my concentration were smaller, which meant smaller class sizes etc.).

  3. Most of my student loan debt that exists came from grad school. If I didn’t study abroad in my undergrad, I would have graduated with about $15,000 in student loan debt from a private school. I was the product of a single parent household and you can often get more financial aid from a private school than public because they can set their own barometers for how much aid they can give.

    I also went to a lower cost private school and became an RA which helped out exceedingly.

      • KK on November 12, 2013 at 1:29 pm
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      Good points. In additional to scholarships I got a fair about of financial aid based on my parents income (one of the few times it’s a good thing not to have loads of money ;-))

  4. I went to a private business college to do my first degree. I later went to a community college and even though I had a partial scholarship at the private one, it was still more expensive than the community college.Right now since I am planning on going back to school, i still don’t know where I will go.

      • KK on November 12, 2013 at 1:30 pm
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      Smart, to look into a few different options. If you’d just applied to the private school you wouldn’t have known you could have gone to the community college for cheaper or vice versa as sometimes is the case. What are you planning to study when you go back?

      1. I want to get my Bachelor’s in Nursing

  5. I went to a large public university, mostly because that system was all I knew. I was blown away when I visited my friend at a private university, since her class size was 30 at most since mine were usually 200+ (at least with core courses). If I hopefully have little ones, I’d have them consider both private and public for the reasons you stated above (especially since it’s not uncommon these days to have 350 students in a class).

      • KK on November 12, 2013 at 1:33 pm
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      I don’t think I’ve ever had a class (grad school or undergrad) that was more than 50 people. Truthfully it would be hard for me to concentrate and pay attention in a class that large. I like having a personal connection with my professions (and even fellow classmates-which I would imagine would be hard in a class that large). I also don’t particularly like public speaking and in a class that large I’d feel like I was making a speech.

  6. I went to a public university with a partial scholarship, so that was a win/win, but I think it was a bit different “back then.” I think there is a lot to factor in when picking a university, however if funds were tight I’d still consider trying to do what I could to save money, whether that be go local for a couple years and maybe transfer. I felt pretty lucky with my situation.

      • KK on November 12, 2013 at 1:35 pm
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      I had some very smart classmates who didn’t receive any scholarships at public schools (including the U of Maine). I’m not sure if they just have enough students and don’t feel like they have to “win over” anybody with scholarships or what. I’m pretty sure my sister got a scholarship at university of NH, but she’s 6 years older than me, so maybe things changed by the time me and my friends were applying to college.

  7. I went to a private school and don’t regret it (well, I regret how much I took out in loans, but that’s another story). The biggest factors for me were affiliation (I did a college affiliated with the church of the Bretheran), size and location. My college was close enough to go home on the weekend and small enough that everyone knew everyone. I’m glad I didn’t do a bigger school because I would’ve been lost in the crowd.

      • KK on November 12, 2013 at 1:38 pm
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      Religious affiliation is definitely something to consider if that’s a part of your life. Bf went to Catholic schools growing up and when he chose a college he ended up at a public school that happened to have a large Catholic population (which was important to him).

  8. I chose private education because I was looking for a religious type environment. Yes, it was more expensive but with scholarships, work study program and a few small loans I made it through. Best part…met the Mrs. there. 🙂

      • KK on November 12, 2013 at 1:41 pm
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      Aww, for a minute I felt like I was watching one of those credit card commercials (“priceless”). Definitely can’t put a pricetag on meeting your future spouse at college 🙂

  9. This didn’t really apply to me all that much because I’m Canadian and we don’t really have a huge divide here, but different things work for different people!

      • KK on November 12, 2013 at 1:43 pm
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      Ahh, gotta love those Canadian college costs! I had a few friends who went to college in Canada (US citizens). It actually eneding up not being that cheap because they didn’t get the resident (or whatever) tuition discounts and had to pay full-price. But that was a while back, maybe things have changed.

  10. Girl! Good for you on getting scholarships to offset the cost. Unfortunately I did not, and there’s no way I would have ever been able to afford private college.

      • KK on November 12, 2013 at 1:44 pm
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      Each person’s situation is different, that’s why I encourage folks to look into every option. You never know what kind of deal you can get until you look around.

  11. Ironically, my sis-in-law just figured out that it would be cheaper to send my nephew, who’s a junior in high school this year, to a small private college here than the big public university, due to scholarship availability, so this tip really is true!! It’s SO important, as you mentioned, to look beyond the dollar amount in the tuition handbook!

      • KK on November 12, 2013 at 1:46 pm
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      Because I grew up in such a small (and poor) town, it was actually cheaper for a lot of me friends to go to private school (even if they weren’t stellar students and didn’t get any sort of merit scholarships). It has been my experience that private schools care more about how much money you have, and consider that when determining how much money you should pay.

  12. I went to a private University and while I loved many things about it, looking back the tuition is a bit high and it would have been nice to not have as many student loans.

      • KK on November 12, 2013 at 1:47 pm
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      Live and learn right? I think many of us (myself included) would do things a little differently if we could do it all again. But I had a wonderful time in college and met some of my best friends there, so it is what it is 🙂

  13. I went to privates for both college and grad school. Looking back, the financially sensible thing to do would’ve been going to a public university for undergrad, saving the money, and then having that money to on my terminal degree. On the other hand, I got a lot out of my private college..

      • KK on November 12, 2013 at 1:49 pm
      • Reply

      It definitely was cheaper for me to go to my private undergrad then it would have been for me to go to my in-state university, but it also would have been a fraction of the price if I’d gone to community college for a couple of years and then went to my undergraduate university. I don’t regret my decision, but my wallet probably did for a few years 😉

  14. I went to a public school. Actually I wanted to go to a private school and I got a decent amount of scholarships/financial aid. But I’m sure a lot of that was contingent on different factors and it may have been cut my second year. Also, part of the package was work-study and loans. Basically my dad nixed the idea of paying for private school. I was a bit upset at the time, but kind of glad that I didn’t take out extra loans for private undergrad. My bachelors probably doesn’t matter much since I went to grad school. That was a private school and I have a lot of student loan debt.

  15. I went to a pubic school as price was a major factor. Also location was important as it was near a major city so I can get a high paying job. Ironically I moved out of state when I got my first real job.

  16. I went to public school and on a scholarship so my tuition was $5 a year! Then to business school which was expensive but I got a company to pay for me so it was free as well. Over 5 years that is a lot of money.

  17. Very Interesting!
    I actually attended a private school. While the tuition was extremely expensive, I ended up learning a lot. I received a great education, and I liked that the classes wwre more involved. I enjoyed having a student-teacher relationship, and my friends were always there for me.
    Financilly, I needed to take loans, but if you are willing to go the extra mile, then I believe that private school is the best choice.
    However, there are also many advantages when you go to public school.

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