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Choosing between a public college and a private college

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You might be facing the choice between attending a large public college and a private college. Here are some relevant thoughts:

Some large public colleges are much stronger than others

This is true even after restricting consideration to the best public college in each state and is true both of the students and of the faculty members. The case for attending a large state school is much stronger if it's among the best public colleges.

Two indicators of the large differences between public colleges across states are

Differences in SAT scores

The 75th percentile of SAT scores at University of Arkansas are

  • SAT Critical Reading: 620 (83rd percentile)
  • SAT Math: 640 (83rd percentile)
  • SAT Writing: 610 (83rd percentile)

By way of contrast, the 75th percentile of SAT scores at University of California at Berkeley are

  • SAT Critical Reading: 720 (96th percentile)
  • SAT Math: 770 (99th percentile)
  • SAT Writing: 740 (98th percentile)

These discrepancies corresponds to large differences in intellectual caliber.

Relative rankings of graduate programs

The US News and World Report ranking of a graduate program reflects the quality of the faculty in the department in significant measure. UC Berkeley's biology, chemistry and computer science programs are all tied for #1 or #2 in the country. By way of contrast, some large public colleges are not among the top 50 ranked graduate programs in a given area.

Some other public colleges that tend to have highly ranked graduate programs are University of California at Los Angeles, University of Washington, University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign, University of Wisconsin at Madison, and University of Michigan.


Public colleges can be very large, with some of them having 10,000 students per grade: this is 5 times bigger than the number of students per grade at Harvard. See pros and cons of attending a large college for some relevant considerations.

Bureaucracy in public colleges

Public colleges can be more bureaucratic, perhaps owing to their large size, perhaps owing to the legalities connected with their being government organizations. This can lead to problems, such as students being unable to change majors. We don't have a lot of data on this point, but it's a consideration to keep in mind.


College tuition varies enormously from college to college. For example, UC Berkeley charges $13k/year in tuition and Harvard charges $42k/year in tuition, so there's a $116k difference between the two over 4 years.

Taken at face value, this might seem highly significant, and for some families, it is. However, it's important to note that a college that has much higher tuition than a second college may still be as cheap or cheaper to attend owing to financial aid. For example, using the UC Berkeley and Harvard financial aid calculators [ we found] that for families that make less than $140k/year and that have $300k or less in savings, attending Harvard is cheaper than attending UC Berkeley.

We strongly urge you to use the online financial aid calculators for the colleges that you might be interested in applying to to assess whether you'd be able to get enough financial aid to afford them before ruling them out as too expensive.