"Public Vs. Private College: The Cost" is the first in a three part series examining how choose what type of college to attend. For a full picture of the process, also read part two, "The Experience" and part three, "The Bottom Line".
by Karis Hustad
The cost may be the most blatant difference between attending a public or private university, but what if the cost turns out to be the same after financial aid? This is when many students are left wondering what each type of school can offer, and whether one is worth more than the other.
Two factors that can indicate the type of education is the experience, both from an administrative and student perspective. This can encompass everything from the amount of extracurricular opportunities to classroom environment, and ultimately shapes a student's daily life. Often this experience is what persuades students to spend a little more, or a little less on their four years of higher education.
Stereotypes perpetuated by the television and film industries often lead students to think they know what a school will be like before they visit. Experts on both sides, however, say misconceptions push students away from schools that could be their best fit.
Many students are initially dissuaded from attending a public university in fear of large class sizes and little personal attention.
Robert McMaster, Vice Provost and Dean of Undergraduate Education at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, said a large de-personalized student body isn't necessarily what you'll find at a public school.
"One of the things that allow students to find those places that are the best fit… [is that] you have everything from a community college to a large university," McMaster said. "For those who are college-ready, public education should provide an access point."
He explained that the public school system offers options for a variety of academic and financial backgrounds from local community colleges to small rural campuses (like the University of Minnesota-Morris) to sprawling urban campuses (like the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities). Each of these settings can offer students vastly different experiences.
But even if students do choose a much larger school, there are resources set up to be sure individual students don't get lost in the crowd.
McMaster pointed out at the University of Minnesota website, there is an online tool for students to explore different majors and courses, as well as a Graduation Planner that helps students map out their four-year plan. In addition, the University of Minnesota- Twin Cities has recently opened the Center for Academic and Professional Experience (CAPE).
McMaster said CAPE helps students "who get lost in the cracks" by helping students identify a path and major with a variety of advising techniques. McMaster also noted that the academic options are incomparable.
"We have 150 majors, thousands of courses to choose from," he said. "There is really diversity in education."
In terms of private schools, however, many people believe the academic options are limited because they believe private schools don't have the sweeping resources of a flagship research institution. John Manning, director of communications at the Minnesota Private College Council , said this is not the case.
"Students may think that these smaller institutions can't offer you the variety of majors that are going to be appealing ... that's off-base," he said.
Manning noted that between the 17 different institutions that comprise the MN Private College Council, there are 137 different majors to choose from. He also said smaller private schools can offer the extra-curricular and one-on-one opportunities that many large universities cannot.
"First, the academic options are really rich and secondly there are so many ways to get involved at a private, non-profit college," he said. "Engagement in the college, the life of the school is maybe easier at a smaller school and that can be a real meaningful opportunity for students."
This sense of engagement is something Manning believes extends far beyond four years in college, and makes private college worth it.
"Students are going to have some amazing research opportunities while they're in college, they're going to have mentors; they're going to have opportunities for interaction with faculty that are going to be eye-opening," he said. "When they emerge from college they are going to be better prepared for going into grad school or getting an internship and going into their career."
The Student Perspective:
Bianca Jones, a junior communications and journalism major at the University of St. Thomas, said she didn't even initially consider private college.
"I was never really looking for private schools because they always had that stigma that they were really expensive," she said. "And I knew that I wouldn't be able to afford a private college, like you're looking at those numbers like $35,000. Personally, I have $100 in my bank account."
Jones applied primarily to public schools in Wisconsin and Illinois, but filled out an application to St. Thomas last-minute because she saw it was free to apply. After being accepted, she made an appointment with a financial aid counselor and was surprised at how willing they were to attend to her needs.
"I found them really helpful, and I think that's because they don't have a million students to guide along that really treacherous journey of figuring out whether or not you can afford college," she said. "So with the help of them, I was able to find out that I could go to this really amazing school that had plenty of communication majors (graduate) and be really successful."
Other students, however, haven't had such an easy process. Brandon Tice, a junior and political science major at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, transferred from a private school after his freshman year.
"My education at Loyola was, ironically, what made me reconsider it," Tice said.
Tice initially decided on Loyola University Chicago because he said he wanted a new start in a new city -- despite the higher cost. But a few months into his freshman year, he started following education news and recognized his own story in print.
"I remember coming across all these stories that said 'I graduated with this much debt…' and all these stories sounded exactly like mine," he said. "They knew it was a little out of their reach but they did it anyway because they said it felt right and their parents encouraged them because they were so proud and it ended up … (that it) kinda ruined them."
Tice also realized he would graduate with more loans than he originally anticipated and decided to make the switch. Even though he said he misses Loyola, after a year at the University of Minnesota, Tice is happy with his decision.
"People have a lot of pride for the 'U' and it is a beautiful campus, and the 'U' has given me many opportunities that Loyola couldn't," he admitted.
Check back on Monday for the part three of the "Public Vs. Private College" series, and find out what current college students and experts think is vital to consider before choosing a college.
Karis Hustad is an intern at WCCO.com and a Twin Cities native, studying journalism at Loyola University Chicago. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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