An individual choice: Weighing the benefits of a private education versus a public college education

The average American spends $223,360 on four-year private school tuition. With such a high price tag— roughly half the price of a U.S. home — some may wonder whether choosing a private higher education can be justified. Both public and private institutions have unique benefits and drawbacks, and whether the cost of private college tuition is worthwhile depends on the specific student in question. 

Although the high cost of private colleges and universities may seem ridiculous to students, some of these places actually spend more money on each student than the cost of tuition. For example, according to its website, Williams College spends around $54,400 more on each student than what it charges for tuition. Similarly, Vanderbilt charges students almost $65,000 dollars a year in tuition, while spending $119,000 on each student. In this way, the cost of private education may be more justifiable or at least more understandable. Additionally, at some private institutions, many students will never pay the full fee and will instead be covered by some amount of need-based or merit-based financial aid. Need-based financial aid awards aid based on students’ financial situations, while merit-based aid awards support based on a student’s academic achievements. Harvard, for example, gave need-based aid to almost 60% of its class of 2025.  

The decision to go to a private university also depends on the field a student is planning to enter. Vanderbilt’s medical engineering majors have median earnings of $94,340 four years after they graduate. On the other hand, English language and literature majors earn $53,767 annually. Private institutions often yield higher economic returns for science majors than for the humanities, making a student’s intended major something to consider when evaluating the price of a college. There is also some evidence that on average students who graduate from private colleges go on to earn more on average than public college graduates. A report from the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce found that attending a private nonprofit college led to economic gains of $838,000 while attending a public college led to economic gains of $756,000. However, in order to afford the cost, private college attendees tend to borrow more than public college attendees. According to U.S. News, students who graduated from a private college in 2022 borrowed $23,627 compared to public school graduates who borrowed $20,371. The increased amount borrowed could lead to more debt for private college attendees, potentially canceling out the increased earnings. 

But post-college income is certainly not the only factor to consider when making college decisions; educational values are also important to consider. A 2015 study by the Council of Independent Colleges found that private institutions’ coursework was, comparatively, more likely to emphasize “high-order learning.” High-order learning consists of learning how to analyze several pieces of evidence and different points of view and draw new ideas from them. However, it is worth considering that attending a public college, which is often more diverse than its private counterpart, may better lend itself to “high-order learning” in everyday life. Being surrounded by people with different backgrounds and experiences may naturally help students understand different points of view and form their own ideas and opinions. 

One of the largest advantages of attending a private institution is that it can make it easier for students to build close-knit relationships with peers and professors. While this is also possible by attending many public universities, building close connections with professors and peers in a larger environment can be more difficult. This could make attending a private college particularly worthwhile for more quiet or shy students whose learning could benefit from knowing and feeling comfortable with everyone in their community and classes. According to College Transitions, the top ten feeder colleges and universities to PhD programs, adjusted for the size of the institutions, are all private colleges. This could partly be due to the small school size which enables close relationships between students and faculty, though the cost and accessibility of graduate programs must be taken into consideration as well. 

Yet in other instances, the large size of public universities can lead to distinct benefits. Meeting a like-minded community and finding niche activities that suit your interests may be easier. Additionally, public universities’ size also makes them more likely to offer uncommon majors that interest students and the wealth of faculty might allow undergraduates to take advantage of more research opportunities. 

Both private and public institutions have unique benefits and can provide healthy learning environments for students to grow. At the end of the day, whether a private education is worth it depends on the specific student and their needs and desires. As Kea Morshed, a Berkeley High School senior said, “I think that any school you go to is what you make of it, big, small, private, public … I really don’t think going to a certain university guarantees you anything unless you put in the work and use its resources to their maximum potential.”