Are Private Colleges Worth It? Some Weak Arguments for Higher Fees

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Johns Hopkins University President Ronald Daniels argues that private liberal arts colleges are worth the money in a column for US News & World Report's America's Best Colleges guide. He notes: "If a private institution, even one with a daunting sticker price, is the right school for you, it's more than likely that the aid is there to make it possible for you to enroll."

But many things that are possible are also stupid -- just ask baseball pitcher Roger Clemens. The New York Times personal finance columnist Ron Lieber profiled a New York University grad who racked up close to $100,000 in student loan debt attending the school. The financial aid office helped her find the loans. Was the aid there to make it possible for her to enroll? Yes. But did enrolling also ruin her financial life, probably permanently? You bet.

Just because it's possible to enroll doesn't mean that the financial sacrifice will be worth it. As I've argued, if you can attend one school debt-free while another college will require significant student loans, you should basically always go with the debt-free diploma.

Varying Alumni Opinions

Daniels meanders his way to this conclusion: "Is it worth it? Don't take my word for it. Ask a student at a private college or university. Ask our alumni. I'll bet they'll tell you the same thing they tell us: Yes."

The problem? I've talked to some students at private colleges who love it and say it's worth it and others who hate it and say they would've been better off investing the money in a Nigerian e-mail scam. So no help there. But what if someone had meticulously surveyed students from schools all over the country to find out whether, on average, students were more satisfied with private colleges?

Fortunately, someone actually did that. In my book, Debt-Free U: How I Paid For An Outstanding College Education Without Loans, Scholarships, or Mooching Off My Parents, I look at a survey conducted by Noel-Levitz in 2007 where hundreds of thousands of students at different institutions were asked whether they were satisfied with their college experience. Here are the proportion respondents who were satisfied:
  • 53% of students at four-year public colleges
  • 52% of students at four-year private colleges
  • 59% of students at two-year public colleges
Does that mean that private colleges are bad? No -- a 1% differential is hardly statistically significant. But here's the point: Picking a school by asking private college students whether they're satisfied with their experience is a hard argument to make because if you're going to choose based on that, you really should go with a community college.

Feeble Argument

I hear admissions officers, guidance counselors, and well-intentioned parents all the time say, "You'll have a better college experience at a small private college." Before you fork over the cash though, ask for evidence. They don't have any.

If "ask a random student whether a private college is worth it" is the best argument the president of Johns Hopkins University can make, I have to tell you: I'm not impressed. If I had just cut a fat check (or worse, taken out a loan) to pay for a private college education, I'd be scared.

Zac Bissonnette's book, Debt-Free U: How I Paid For An Outstanding College Education Without Loans, Scholarships, Or Mooching Off My Parents, is available for pre-order and will be in stores Aug. 31.
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