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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.

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.

Size

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 than private colleges, perhaps owing to their large size or 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.

Cost

One of the most salient differences between public universities and private universities is tuition. According to the College Board, the average cost of tuition and fees for the 2013–2014 school year was $30,094 at private colleges, $8,893 for state residents at public colleges, and $22,203 for out-of-state residents attending public universities. So the average difference between a private college and in-state public college is $84,804 in tuition over 4 years. However, this difference does not take financial aid into account.

We give some considerations relevant to cost under college selection: factors to consider.

Our verdict

How you should weigh these considerations depends on the particulars of your situation, so it's difficult to make general statements. All things considered, we would guess that of students who are choosing between a public college and a private college

Most students who

  1. have SAT scores that are 150+ points higher per section than the average SAT scores for the public college that they're considering
  2. are accepted at a private college with matching SAT scores

would do better to go to the private college, even if there's a substantial cost differential.

Most students who

  1. have SAT scores that are no more than 50 points higher per section than the average SAT scores for the public college that they're considering
  2. are willing and able to be resourceful in how they utilize their college's resources

would do better to go to the public college over private colleges, even if there's not a substantial cost differential.