Friday, April 25, 2014

College Corner: What are the pros and cons of public universities vs. private colleges?


There are many instances in life where people have to choose between two similar yet distinct options that can play an elemental role in self-development — dog or cat? Giants or A’s? iPhone or Galaxy?

One of the more crucial is public university or private college? Unfortunately, there is no magic formula or computer algorithm to answer this question. Following are some of the main aspects to consider.

Basic information
There are roughly 2,300 four-year, not-for-profit higher education entities in the United States, of which about 700 are public and the remaining 1,600 are private (National Center for Education Statistics, The main difference between them is how they are funded.

Public schools receive funding from state and local governments and can therefore charge relatively low tuition (although the publicly funded portion has been decreasing over time). Examples are the University of California system, California State University system, and University of Oregon. The yearly resident tuition at these California schools ranges from about $7,000 to about $13,000, not including room and board and miscellaneous expenses.

Private colleges, on the other hand, receive almost all of their funding from tuition and thus charge higher tuition (ranges from about $25,000 to about $45,000 yearly, not including room and board, etc). Some examples of private colleges popular with Davis students are the Claremont Colleges, Occidental and Whitman.

Primary differences
Along with tuition, here are some other issues to consider:

* Size. Public universities tend to be bigger than private colleges. They usually have a large number of undergraduates, ranging from several thousand to tens of thousands, and a sizable number of graduate students. Many of these schools have a significant percentage of students who commute and do not live on campus.

In comparison, most private colleges have a smaller number of undergraduates ranging from several hundred to several thousand and often few, if any, graduate students. Of course there are exceptions — USC, NYU and Stanford, for instance.

* Mission. Public universities usually are tasked with making in-state students a priority. In general, they are more research-oriented and therefore offer more graduate-level degrees. Most private colleges, however, are more liberal arts-focused and often require students to take core humanities courses. Many private colleges offer only bachelor’s degrees.

* Class offerings and course structure. In general, public universities usually offer a wider variety of majors and classes. At the lower-division level, many classes are large lectures that may have several hundred students. There are “break out” sections of about 30 students, each taught by graduate student instructors in order to provide more discussion opportunities. Most private colleges (depending on the size) usually have smaller average class sizes at the lower-division level and few graduate students instructors teaching sections.

* Application requirements. By and large, the application workload is less onerous for public schools. Most private colleges require additional essays, tests and letters of recommendation.

So, which one is the “right” choice?

Not surprisingly the answer to which type — public or private — is right for you really depends on you. Below are the main advantages/disadvantages to evaluate:

* Impaction. In the world of college admissions, it means that demand exceeds supply for a particular major and/or campus. It is mostly a public-school phenomenon. (See box for details on impaction.)

* Resources and costs. Colleges with larger endowments, mainly the private colleges, are often able to spend more per student on educational services and financial aid awards. In addition, about 60 private schools (the more selective ones) have a stated policy of meeting 100 percent of a family’s demonstrated need.

Public universities normally have less aid available, but there are various options such as the UC’s Blue and Gold Scholarship. To get a better sense of the cost difference between public and private schools, use a net price calculator (every college should have one on their website) to estimate the total cost of attendance minus any grants and scholarships for which you may be eligible.

* National recognition. The large size, research and sports teams at public universities may make their “name brand” more well-known nationally. Many of the smaller, less popular private colleges have limited name recognition once a student leaves the campus area so it may be harder to compete with students from well-known schools in a national job market.

Wrap up
Keep in mind that whether a public or a private college/university is the right fit for you is a decision that should be examined along with many other crucial factors such as location, cost and student body characteristics. And don’t forget there is a right college out there for you!

— Jennifer Borenstein is an independent college adviser in Davis and owner of The Right College For You. Her column is published on the last Tuesday of the month. She lives in Davis with her husband and two daughters. Reach her at, or visit

Impaction at California public universities
* 16 of 23 CSU campuses are designated as impacted for freshman. five campuses designate all of their majors as impacted. (
* 5 UC campuses out of 9 serving undergraduates have several majors closed to freshmen in 2014. Most of these majors are in engineering, business and biological sciences.

What this means for students is that they may have a harder time getting into their campus of choice and/or their desired major. As a result, they may not get the classes they want or need to graduate on time.

Jennifer Borenstein


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