Devil's Advocate 

Don’t Go To A Private University

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This is a Devil's Advocate post.

All throughout high school, the importance of going to college was everywhere. If it wasn’t my parents, it was my teachers. If it wasn’t my teachers, it was the guidance counselor. Everyone stressed the importance of college. In fact, they were even more specific. They stressed the importance of getting into a good college, which in guidance counselor terms meant a college that was good in the field you were interested in. In many many cases, that college was a private university. While safe advice, it’s not necessarily true.

Going to a public university gives you a better shot at success than a private university. You don’t have to go to a private university to succeed. In fact, going to a private university gives you no advantage over a public university. To take it to an extreme, going to a private university puts you at a disadvantage in life because you are paying significantly more for your education, thus saddling you with debt obligations, with no benefit.

Student Loan Debt

The average cost of a single year (this includes tuition, room & board, etc.) at a 4 year private college is $24,044 and the average cost of a year at a 4 year public college is $13,589 according to the College Board. Is private school truly worth the extra $10,455 a year?

It’s worth it if you can show that a graduate of a private university can earn significantly and consistently more than someone from a public university. I’ve never seen such a study or a report, likely because there’s no way to prove it. To claim a higher chance of success at a private school is like claiming that reading to a child when they’re young will improve their cognitive abilities. There may be a correlation but there’s no proof of causation. (This is a topic touched on in Freakonomics)

Greater Sense of Camaraderie

A school with a competitive sports program creates more school pride than a school without a competitive sports program. By leaps and bounds, public colleges have far superior sports programs than private colleges. Carnegie Mellon University, my alma mater and top notch private university, had no notable sports programs and I felt no strong attachment to the school. (I greatly respect my professors and peers and the education the school provided but in all other areas they were lacking) My friends from schools with better sports programs, public or private, often feel a much greater bond with their alma maters as a result of a strong sports program. Ever meet someone who went to Penn State? Or Ohio State? Or Texas? You know what I mean.

Easier To Network

Business is all about your network. If you’re an engineer working on a design, you probably don’t think that your network is all that important. Well, what happens when you need a part ordered? Or a drawing drafted? Or something to get through shipping? You could wait in the queue or you can tap your personal network to get your job done faster. The same is true in any industry at any level.

A significant reason why students want to attend Harvard is because of the networking opportunities. However, is the network worth the expense? Is that network that much better than the one you’ll build elsewhere? While you could make a case for Harvard, I doubt you could make the same case for every other private university in the country (or even 5% of them). You can build just as strong a network at a public university as you can at a private one.

The opportunities to build a network (and a larger one) are more plentiful at public universities because there are so many more students there! You may argue that you’re limited more by the physics of meeting people than the total number of students, I would agree. However, the pool of potential candidate “friends” is much larger so you’re more likely to meet networkable people.

More Alumni

Again, playing on the numbers, the alumni network is far greater at public schools than at private schools. If a public school graduates 5,000 students a year and a private school graduates only 1,000, then the public school will have five times the number of alumni (duh!). More alumni, and more passionate alumni, means the chances you run into an alum is much higher. I haven’t run into many (as in less than ten) Carnegie Mellon alumni, that I didn’t know beforehand, in my professional experience in the last six years.

Public schools are private schools are close enough such that it makes little sense to pay the private school premium. You walk into any company and there will be graduates from both private and public schools. The titles and salaries are not correlated with the issuer of the degree as much as it is correlated to the ability of the employee. The dumbest and most well-connected fool with a degree from Harvard isn’t going to cut it compared to a sharp mind from any public school.

Save the money and go public. 🙂

{ 30 comments, please add your thoughts now! }

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30 Responses to “Don’t Go To A Private University”

  1. Dan says:

    Your analysis is flawed and shows that you did not do the required research to write this blog. Shame on you! Yes, the initial price of public universities may be less than private universities, but most of the time that’s just the sticker price. Private schools usually have exceptional financial aid programs with a lot more money to throw around. Also, most private college have fewer students in each class, and their student to faculty ratio is lower. Having only 25 people in a class creates a better learning environment than having 250, no matter what people argue.

    To make a blanket statement that public is cheaper than private is completely foolish and not based in fact but rather concocted argument based on biased perceptions. If you wanted to keep your credibility intact you should have argued that in some cases public univeristies are cheaper than private, but in some cases the opposite is true. In order to determine which is right in your case you need to see what financial aid is offerred by your college and see what they’re willing to give you.

    In all honesty, I am a product of a private college. I should also note that I paid about $10k less PER YEAR than my younger brother who went to a public college. Thank you financial aid.

  2. A.J. says:

    I think this blog post assumes in-state rates at public schools. Sometimes private schools are on par (financially speaking) with out-of-state public school rates.

    Additionally, I think it assumes that a bigger network is better. But are the connections at a large state school as strong as in a much smaller network? You’ve got to account for the quality of the network… which is not to say public schools do not allow for quality networking, it’s just an idea to ponder.

  3. tom says:

    I actually agree with a lot of your arguements.

    I went to Michigan, which is a very expensive public school, but I had in-state tuition so it was relatively cheap.

    All arguements aside, we have a top sports program, and everyone interested in sports has a deep seeded connection to our school. There is a +/- 10 year wait list for football tickets (depending on how much you donate to the athletic dept.).

    We have a top engineering school, which allows for great peer, faculty and alumni networking.

    Lots of good reasons to choose public over private.

  4. jim says:

    Dan: It’s not that my analysis is flawed, it’s that this is a Devil’s Advocate post and I chose to look at stats in general. I understand financial aid helps but in general, and these posts are always in general, private college is more expensive that public college. As for going into specific school vs. school, you are correct, it’s not fair to make a blanket statement but I think that’s acceptable for the scope of this article.

    AJ: True on both counts. After working for several years, I’ve come to believe, at least in engineering fields, your college is of little consequence after your first job. Your promotions and second job opportunities depend on your performance at the first job and your network.

  5. Start-Up says:

    Wow, this can be an extremely controversial post!

    I went to a private school that was very expensive. I received a bit of financial aid, and had to take out some student loans. I also made enough money in summer internships to pay for my student loans. Due to the excellence of my private school I was afforded the opportunity to do engineering work on SALARY as my summer job for all three summers. Additionally, my first job (as well as my fellow alumni) came with a starting salary significantly higher than my friends who went to state schools. Also, I have responsibilities in my first job that my other friends do not, which will allow me to jump to another job at a larger salary as well.

    I know that my experience is not necessarily the usual for private school alumni and i’m sure similar examples have been had by public school goers. It really comes down to a cost benefit analysis. My education cost more than a public school, but it was more than made up for before I even graduated.

    I also agree strongly with AJ in that the quality of the network is much more important than the size.

  6. Keep in mind that the figures in the article are “average”. In extremes, Some friends of mine (twins) went to a 4 year private school and each walked out with a $90,000 loan on their hands. I however went to a 2 year public school and payed $2,000 per year. In the end, I don’t make much less than they do and their $1,000 per month student loans are crippling their finances. Let’s also keep in mind that different degrees have a wider or smaller range of salaries, So the extra $80,000+ may not be worth it if you happen to be in a field where the pay is not going to increase from a higher degree program.

  7. Ken says:

    I went to a private school and it ended up being cheaper than an in-state public school after my financial aid.

  8. Tim says:

    how’s this even a devil’s advocate post? I don’t get it.

  9. I went Ivy league undergrad, public grad. A name brand private school helps with your first job search and gives you credibility later in life in some fields (e.g. engineering). Not all private universities are in the “name brand” category. However, I agree with this post that it is not worth the expense if you have to borrow to go there. Go public, do well, and graduate debt free and you will be ahead of the game.

  10. Rachel says:

    I went to a private university and I actually really enjoyed the environment despite the price I had to pay. I learned that it really doesn’t matter where you go to school or even if you are self taught. It is all about the person you are and the drive you have to make something out of yourself. It doesn’t matter what type of institution you attend. Just think about people such as Bill Gates who never finished college.

    It’s all about the type of person you are and not the type of school you attend that will lead you to success!

  11. omniver says:

    A public school, in principle, offers the chance to obtain a quality education based on merit, not on an ability to pay.

    In this way, public schools serve the general population. It makes me feel proud to know many low-income and middle-class students are able compete with wealthy families for a top notch education because of the missions of public schools.

  12. Cheapo says:

    This is an interesting post that really got me thinking about my college experience compared to others. I agree and disagree with whether going to a private school is worth it or not when compared to a public school.

    Partially I think this more so depends on what one’s major will be and what their goal is after obtaining their undergrad degree. For example with certain majors, such as Information Systems, Business, Accounting, Comp Sci, etc I think attending a public university is totally fine since one will usually be looking to enter the workforce once they graduate. On the other hand when it comes to one aiming to attend med school or some other significant professional school I think going to a well known private school can have some benefits as well. A school’s name can have an influence since more people are usually familiar with the name and reputation. People seem to think that a private university is always harder or more challenging than a public university, but this is not always true. People determining whether or not to accept you into their program may not know much about the public university you attended, but will more likely know more about the private university that you could have attended. Of course this depends on the private university’s reputation too.

    In the end I think one should factor in what their goals may be after completing their under grad education as well as what their budget is. Don’t get me wrong, I am all for public universities, especially if they are ranked well and if in state tuition is considerably cheaper. Plus by just attending a well known private school it does not guarantee anything. You are taking a chance by counting on the school’s rep.

  13. Start-Up says:

    I disagree completely that the public school is the champion of low and middle class students. Affirmative action is the champion of low-income students. I have friends who attended ivy league schools for less than any public in-state school was offering. Moreover, one of my friends who went to an ivy league school paid a grand total of 3k over four years.

    I also disagree that private schools are better to get into grad school directly out of undergrad. Grad school is largely based on numbers, such as GPA and GRE or GMAT, etc.

    There are numerous positives and negatives for public and private schools. It all depends on each individual’s circumstances. If you are looking to save money, just go with the cheapest option. Although a cost benefit analysis will take into consideration more than just upfront costs.

  14. g says:

    I have taught in both a public and a private university setting (and I have also taught in high school) – teaching (science, actually) is my field.

    My opinion is that for ~85% of the student population, private school is much better with respect to learning (I cannot judge in regards to future prosperity). For the 15% of the student that is highly motivated AND are unusually intelligent, it doesn’t matter where they go.

    Private colleges typically have smaller class sizes, which is in my opinion the single most important factor (actually – the capability of interacting with the prof is the actual factor), attract higher quality profs, and attract profs with better teaching skills (or at the very least, greater interest in teaching). The education is simply better. For example, with a class of 100+ (sometimes as high as 300-400), I simply cannot grade/correct/annotate homework or other work. With 20-30 students I can grade homework and make notes of where errors occurred.

    There are some exceptions – certain technical degrees (engineering and computer) would possibly be better at a good public school with the appropriate facilities.

    I will send my kid(s) to private school – unless I simply won’t be able to afford it. If money is an issue, I would recommend that people find a smaller public school or, if applicable, an ‘Honors’ program at a larger university.

  15. mbhunter says:

    Save even more money, test out of your first year (or more), live at home, take classes online or find a great deal out of state, quit procrastinating on what you want to do when you grow up, and earn your own tuition.

    Better yet, start a business or learn a trade right out of high school. Plumbers make more than I do with a PhD.

    Don’t know why this was a DA post.

    Wal-Mart should accredit an online university and run 80% of the private schools into the ground — where they belong.

  16. Ron says:

    I went to a private school, bombed out and went back years later to an online school (accredited). I also went on to get my MBA at a public school that had an online program.

    I agree with MBHunter. I’m encouraging my kids to take online classes or go to a junior college the first two years and then make a decision.

    I have numerous friends that have attended private colleges and public colleges. I can honestly say that there’s no difference in their current job situations.

  17. Jim says:

    I don’t think its right to make any broad generalization that private or public schools are better. It really depends on the situation. There are bad public schools and bad private schools and good of both. A good school is going to be better than a bad school. Spending too much for a school is not a good idea either.

    How much is too much depends on the situation. $40k a year for a small unknown private liberal arts school will probably not “pay off” but spending $60k a year to go to Harvard Law may be well worth the cost. I would say honestly that I think in general that you will get more for your money at a public school simply because private schools tend to cost much more. But thats just a generalization. Stanford is going to be a better buy than Underfunded Nowhere State U.

    If you’re getting scholarships and/or financial aid then that will change what is the best deal. A full ride at Yale is a better buy than paying full cost at Berkeley. It depends on what aid each student is offered.

    Personally I’d apply to the schools that are well regarded in your field. Then make your choice based on where you get in and what the financial aid / cost situation looks like.

  18. Tim says:

    unless specialized, you learn absolutely nothing in college, grad school, or post grad school education wise applicable in real life. well, so i didn’t and i’m making a broad swathing generalization, which if i had actually paid attention in school, i would have learned isn’t a logical argument. at any rate, private v. public, it simply doesn’t matter…not anymore. i have a combination of the two. academic institutions have gotten so bloated like the govt. no one really teaches anymore, private or public. profs are focused on getting tenure and getting published.

    masters are the new bachelors and bachelors are the new GEDs. the trend of late, you don’t even need college to succeed.

  19. That One Caveman says:

    I went to a great state school on a full scholarship after passing up deals from many private schools. It was great walking out with no debt. My wife, on the other hand, went to a private school and had to work her whole way through just to pay the bills. Her grades suffered from the time crunch of working and was forced to take another semester just to bring her grades up. At $30,000 a year tuition, her school did nothing to help her find a job where my school practically lined up potential employers for me. Needless to say, as we continue to pay off her student loans, I have a very bad taste in my mouth for private schools. I will be encouraging my children to look at state schools first and to work hard through high school to get great scholarships.

  20. saladdin says:

    My take:

    1. Jim, could you put a red banner that says “Devels Advocate” at the very top so that you will not get replies from people who think you are being literal. Wait a second, you already do…

    2. I graduated undergrad from public and received MBA from small private. The education quality was identical to me.

    3. As a kid the perception to me was that only the “smartest” kids went to Harvard, Yale etc… Now I know the majority of students there are just average like me. It was a money issue, not IQ issue.

    4. Can someone give links to a private school that costs less then a public (both in the same state of course)? I hear this arguement but too lazy to look myself(must be the public education I received).

    5. How can parents say they will only “encourage” their kids to go to a specific school when the parents are the ones paying?

    6. There is no 6. Made you look.


    No spell or grammar check used in creating this post. I have noticed in “education” posts some like to use errors to claim “See my public or private education was better because I know the correct way to use the word ‘cat’ in a sentence.”

  21. Lise says:

    Can someone give links to a private school that costs less then a public

    The argument is not that the sticker price is less than a public school, but that after financial aid is factored in, one ends up paying less to attend a public school.This is how it worked with me, and why I ended up attending a Seven Sisters school, emerging with less debt than I would have had for a state education ($12K total for four years).

    The way it works is this: the amount of financial aid you receive is based on how much you can be expected to contribute. If your family’s income is low, the difference between the expected contribution and the total sticker price is what the college attempts to make up. In the case of a public school, that difference is smaller, so you actually end up receiving less financial aid. Additionally, many private schools have endowments that can offer greater finaid packages than state schools can.

    In the end my alma mater, Vassar, and state/federal funding ended up paying for $20K of the $28K my first year tuition cost. Best of all, most of that was grant aid, that I’ll never need to pay back. Some of that was because I stayed in state, and NY offers scholarships to incentivize people to stay in-state – I know my packages at Mt. Holyoke and Smith (both in MA), where I was also accepted, were not half as good. I did not apply to any state schools, but from my peers who did, it appears I would not have been half as well funded.

    I can also say that I have taken classes at public schools (I’m now pursuing my MS at a state school in MA) and less highly ranked privates (Brandeis University), and the quality of the education was NOT as good as what I received at Vassar. One of the BIG differences is that at public schools, the likelihood that you’ll be learning from RAs or adjuncts is much higher. I honestly think that’s more important than the class size.

    That said, does this matter to getting a job? I don’t think most businesses care where you go to school. I honestly don’t think it’s made a difference in the jobs I’ve acquired.

    I also had to nitpick this:
    Affirmative action is the champion of low-income students. I have friends who attended ivy league schools for less than any public in-state school was offering.

    That’s not affirmative action; that’s a need-blind admissions policy. Affirmative action has nothing to do with income.

    My advice to any high school student is to look at schools regardless of sticker price; make your decision once you’ve applied, have been admitted, and know the financial aid package. It’s impossible to know ahead of time how much you’ll end up paying. If a private school education is possible, jump for it. Even if going to Vassar hasn’t helped me get a job, the experience alone is more than worth it.

  22. You have good points, Jim. But in hindsight, I wished I attended a private university. My spouse attended a private university, while I went public, and our experiences stand in stark contrast to each other. Of course, we are a small sample set, but we can only go by our own experiences. For instance:

    1. his college was 100000000X safer than mine. My university had a meaningful crime rate relative to other schools. In fact, as a university town, it was downright scary, at least to me (as a female).

    2. today, we only receive invitations from my spouse’s university for functions, camps, organized alumni get togethers, donations and so forth. I get an email once in a while from my alumni organization covering updates on our department.

    3. life just sounded more pleasant and “easy” at the private university — kids there are “taken care of” while my public school left me to my own devices. I can’t tell you how amazed I am that I got out of there in one piece! 😉

    That said, I am strongly considering (or insisting that) my kids attend private colleges. Call me paranoid, but I’m all for spending money for peace of mind.

  23. thebaglady says:

    My hubby went to CalTech and I went to UC Berkeley. Both of these schools have top engineering programs. The cost for my 4 years of college is equivalent to his one year. Salary wise I make more than him and I ended up saving a lot more because I had no loans to pay back. So I guess if you are going to an excellent public school the public school definitely has more bang for the buck.

  24. Dana says:

    From what I understand, the main value of going to a private school isn’t necessarily the better education, it’s the networking. If you get out and get to know your classmates and make some friends, chances are good some of those friends are going to be from rich or otherwise-well-connected families. That could help your career a lot later. It seems to work especially well for people with political aspirations but I don’t see why it wouldn’t work in other industries as well.

  25. cardinal2007 says:

    I’m surprise you would just assume that private universities would necessarily cost more than public universities. I also did my undergrad at Carnegie Mellon, and I paid less than I would’ve paid if I had gone to UVA, the leading public university in VA. Public schools in many states are very stingy about financial aid, but many private schools are quite generous about financial aid. Stanford where I got my Masters basically offers to charge no tuition to students whose families earn less than 100k/yr, at Carnegie Mellon I was getting financial aid grants of over $20k/yr.

    Many people just assume that they can’t afford private universities and miss opportunities that were clearly open to them, leaving them with only one or two choices for good schools to attend. This article and many others just propagate the myth that people can’t afford private universities.

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