Public Colleges Lead to Much Lower Student Loan Debt

Public Colleges Lead to Much Lower Student Loan Debt
Public Colleges Lead to Much Lower Student Loan Debt

A friend critical of my "attend a public college to save the most money" argument recently pointed out to me data showing that, on average, private college graduates don't really graduate with that much more debt than public college graduates.

This is true. According to, 61.2% of grads of four-year public colleges borrow, compared with 70.5% of students who attend private, nonprofit schools. The average public college student borrowed $20,040, while the average private college student borrowed $27,535.

That means students who attend private colleges borrow 37% more -- but what's $7,500 between friends?

Unfortunately, those debt figures don't tell the whole story of just how much more money parents will have to spend, on average, to send their kids to a private college.

Here's why: According to a Sallie Mae Study, parents with children attending four-year private colleges contribute $17,258 per year, compared with $7,838 at four-year public colleges. That's a difference of $9,420.

In other words, if you assumed that parents were keeping their own contributions constant at $7,838 per year, and the student was financing the rest with debt, the average student attending a private four-year college would graduate with $65,215 in debt, compared to the $20,040 in debt that would come with attending a public college.

There's more: Those public college debt figures include students attending out-of-state public colleges. If you limit those numbers to students attending their in-state public colleges, the average debt load is far lower.

The corollary to that is this: Most families sending their kids to private colleges and going into debt to do it could have sent them to public colleges and allowed their kids to earn their bachelor's degrees free and clear.

The bottom line? Don't buy into the hype that private colleges are affordable and that financial aid will make them comparable in cost to public colleges. If your kid gets into one of the most elite colleges in the country, that will often turn out to be the case. But families concerned about value and debt will generally do best by sticking with public colleges.

Zac Bissonnette's Debt-Free U: How I Paid For An Outstanding College Education Without Loans, Scholarships, Or Mooching Off My Parents was called "best and most troubling book ever about the college admissions process" by The Washington Post.