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How To Choose A College: Public vs Private

Category: College Money Strategy
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How To Choose A College: Public vs Private


 I know what you are thinking! You are thinking that there is no way you can afford the price tag of a private college so you are just going to send your student to a state school. You are not alone. Many parents have that very same thought. Do you know who else knows you have those thoughts? Colleges! Public state colleges know that they are the cheapest alternative and private colleges know they lose students to public colleges for that very reason. While you are trying to determine how to choose a college you may be surprised to find out that private universities may have the same out of pocket costs, and maybe less, than the publics. Let me explain.

One of the core principals I teach parents and  students who are developing a College Money Strategy™ is that the easiest way to get free money for college, hands down, is by selecting the right school. The colleges have the money and are willing to give it to students that fit the profile they are looking for.  If you find the colleges where your student fits their ideal profile then your chances of  getting aid rise dramatically. Here’s the critical point. Some colleges have more money than others and some are more willing to hand it out. The question then is not how to choose a college, but how to choose one of these “money” colleges?

Public Colleges – Large

This is the type of college you are thinking about so let’s get straight to it. Right up front let me tell you that big public schools do not have lots of money to dole out. They rely primarily on federal aid. I wrote an article on all the federal programs that are offered and you can find that blog here.  As a general rule large public state colleges will not meet 100% of your financial need. You will be lucky if they meet 70 – 80% of it. Of that percentage very little will be gift aid, maybe 10-20%. Most of the aid will be self help in the form of loans and work study. To make matters worse these types of colleges do not have much to offer in merit based aid. So a bright student may not be offered very much here. Let’s look at the average in-state cost of attendance, the average net price and the average % of incoming freshmen who received scholarship and grant aid at some big public schools (all the stats below are 2011-2012 stats):

  • The University of Alabama – $26,717 / $18,462 – 58%
  • University of Connecticut – $26,122 / $16,357 – 63%
  • The University of Tennessee – $24,746 / $15,298 – 94%
  • University of Michigan – $25,848 / $14,490 – 49%
  • University of Kentucky – $22,960 / $14,390 – 88%

The average Scholarship/grant aid at these 5 colleges was $9,479 and 70% of incoming freshman received it. The University of Tennessee and University of Kentucky skew the 70% number higher because they are states that offer lottery scholarships based on merit. If I average the remaining three colleges that number drops to 57% which in my experience is probably more accurate. This does show you that some states are more aid friendly for their residents than others.


Private Colleges – Large

This category does include the elite privates and they do have large endowments. They have the money! The hurdle here is that a student will have to excel academically to be accepted. If they do then you can see that the net price rivals the larger public colleges.

  • Harvard – $57,050 / $14,145 – 62%
  • Stanford – $58,846 / $19,233 – 55%
  • Yale – $59,320 / $18,479 – 54%
  • Vanderbilt – $59,890 / $19,667 – 62%

The average Scholarship/grant aid at these 4 colleges was $40,896 and only 58% of incoming freshman received it.


Private Colleges – Small To Medium

This is the sweet spot in my opinion. These are small to medium sized private colleges and they are working hard to be recognized. There are many excellent institutions in this category that just don’t have the name recognition. Many of them do have endowments and their net price is similar to both the large public and the large private colleges.

  • Georgetown College – $42,260 / $17,230 – 95%
  • McKendree University – $37,490 / $16,450 – 100%
  • Anderson University – $35,790 / $16,913 – 100%
  • Huntington University – $34,020 / $18,147 – 98%
  • John Brown University – $33,326 / $15,486 – 97%

The average Scholarship/grant aid at these 5 colleges was $19,732 and 98% of incoming freshman received it! Almost everyone is getting free money!


The Takeaway

This is my take on how to choose a college. Remember that these net price numbers are based on an average. It’s very likely that an above average student will get a bigger award. So where do you start? You start with matching your student’s academic profile and start matching it to colleges that view your student as in the top of incoming freshman at that college. You screen for colleges that have proven to give their top students big money. Aim for merit aid and if you qualify for need based aid great. If you don’t qualify for need based aid then you still have a college willing to do what it takes to have your student attend there. Once you have a nice list of colleges only then should you narrow it by the specific criteria your student is looking for. How to choose a college can be a daunting process but if you follow this simple strategy it can become much easier!


Helpful Resources:

College Financial Aid Tracker
The Scholarship and Grant Guide
Learn about the College Money Strategy™



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