Are private colleges and universities a better deal than public ones?

public vs private collegesMy young cousin Cate is a senior in high school and debating what college or university to pick for the fall. She has been wanting to go to UC Berkeley for years, as her dad is an alumnus, but after recent student protests at UC and Cal State campuses over tuition increases, reduced classes and budget cuts, Cate has definitely been having second thoughts about enrolling in the state's tarnished school system.

Her mom, a graduate of the small, private Scripps College in Southern California, urges Cate to consider private schools, tuition be damned. Her reasoning: "Looks like you'll have a better chance of getting the classes you want and graduating in four years than at UC or Cal State, and because those schools are hiking tuition rates, a private school's financial aid package may be a better deal." So Cate reluctantly applied to a few private schools in California and on the East Coast back in the fall, and now she's glad she did.

It seems Cate's story is more common these days. With more states lacking funds for their secondary systems, public colleges and universities are not the education jewels and bargains they once were. And private schools are taking advantage of that. Not that they want to exploit their public rivals, they're just thinking about "the large number of students and how to fit their needs," as Jonathan Brown, president of the Association of Independent California Colleges and Universities (AICCU), told me.

In an article last November, Larry Gordon of the Los Angeles Times wrote that more private schools are emphasizing their lack of enrollment cuts and boosts in financial aid packages. While their annual tuition can be in the mid-five figures, the schools say they can offer the personal attention and courses that state schools are cutting back in, and that students should consider how much it may cost them, in tuition and lost income, if they can't graduate on time in the public school system.

With many students needing to decide what school to accept by May 1, I called Brown at AICCU to see if he's noticed an increased interest of students -- and their parents -- in private over public schools. He says it's still too early to tell, as there's still two months for students to decide on their schools, but the number of college and university students who apply in their senior year has increased in the past five years. "Even before the states' financial problems, we've seen interest increase because students want a more personalized education, and they want to graduate in four years."

Also, private schools have increased the number of spaces in their freshman classes, assuming they will reap the benefits of the public schools' problems, and they're offering more financial aid. When the UC and Cal State systems started cutting their spaces, the AICCU surveyed the state's private schools to see if they were following suit. Brown said none of them planned to cut their enrollments, and every respondent had committed to increasing their financial aid.

"There's $250 million in Cal Grants for students at independent colleges, and our private college members have raised $1 billion more in financial aid," Brown told me. "They've restricted travel budgets and reduced administrative salaries but their commitment to keeping enrollment has not diminished at all."

Another interesting trend is that community colleges, which usually funnel their two-year graduates to state schools, have been calling up private schools and talking over details about sending students to them instead. "A lot of community colleges never considered us as partners before," Brown said.

There are plenty of factors to consider when comparing public and private colleges and universities, and it's best to sit down with a calculator and crunch the numbers of private schools' financial aid packages versus public school education. But with so many states -- and their public university systems -- facing red ink and budget cuts for the foreseeable future, private schools may actually be the best deal for many prospective college students right now.

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