Private vs. public college

by Jennifer Johnson,

Consider these factors when evaluating tuition and cost.

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If a private college appeals to you, but the price of it does not — look again. 

Read almost any story about the cost of higher education and it will point out that tuition and fees, especially at private colleges, have skyrocketed over the past two decades. 

The published price — the first number most parents and students see — only seems to prove the point. Many assume they can’t afford that institution and move on. 

That’s not the full story. Most colleges publish high tuition costs but later reduce the amount through merit scholarships or need-based financial aid, therefore hiding the true cost of attendance. Willamette lowered its own undergraduate tuition beginning fall 2021 for this very reason.

While it’s true that public university tuition — after being offset by state government funding — is typically lower than that of private universities, it’s also true that private universities are affordable. For some, a private education can actually be cheaper than a public one. 

Look beyond tuition when evaluating an institution’s value. Graduation rates, for instance, are important — the longer it takes for you to complete your degree, the more you pay (and the more you lose out on first job earnings).

Generally, undergraduates who attend private schools graduate more often within four- to four-and-a-half years than students at public colleges. In addition, private school students more frequently stay at their first college from year one to graduation. 

Think about earnings in the long run, too. According to a report from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, the highest-ranked colleges that touted the best long-term return on investment were mostly private non-profits. Of 50 total institutions evaluated, 38 fell into that category. 

Every aid award is unique. Willamette's Dean of Admission Mary Randers said even if a college shares the average financial aid award at their institution, the amount includes students who pay full tuition and ones who rely entirely on aid. It’s not as meaningful as the specific amount available to the student, which varies according to financial circumstances.

Often, college websites show aid awards that are close to 50 percent of the cost of attendance, which is due to variances in award packages, she said. Better figures to check into: a family’s average student loan debt upon graduation, the percent of financial need a college meets and whether special scholarships stack on top of or replace financial aid awarded. 

Apply for financial aid early. The Free Application for Federal Student Aid is your friend. In some cases, students who apply early can receive more specific aid information from an institution if the FAFSA is completed ahead of the deadline. 

More financial assistance can be awarded at admission. At Willamette, 99% of admitted students receive some form of merit scholarship based on their admission materials, GPA and/or test scores, according to the financial aid office. This practice is similar at other institutions, too.

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