Are Private Colleges Worth It? Some Weak Arguments for Higher Fees

Johns Hopkins University President Ronald Daniels argues that private liberal arts colleges are worth the money in a column for US News & World Report's America's Best Colleges guide. He notes: "If a private institution, even one with a daunting sticker price, is the right school for you, it's more than likely that the aid is there to make it possible for you to enroll."

But many things that are possible are also stupid -- just ask baseball pitcher Roger Clemens. The New York Times personal finance columnist Ron Lieber profiled a New York University grad who racked up close to $100,000 in student loan debt attending the school. The financial aid office helped her find the loans. Was the aid there to make it possible for her to enroll? Yes. But did enrolling also ruin her financial life, probably permanently? You bet.

Just because it's possible to enroll doesn't mean that the financial sacrifice will be worth it. As I've argued, if you can attend one school debt-free while another college will require significant student loans, you should basically always go with the debt-free diploma.

Varying Alumni Opinions

Daniels meanders his way to this conclusion: "Is it worth it? Don't take my word for it. Ask a student at a private college or university. Ask our alumni. I'll bet they'll tell you the same thing they tell us: Yes."

The problem? I've talked to some students at private colleges who love it and say it's worth it and others who hate it and say they would've been better off investing the money in a Nigerian e-mail scam. So no help there. But what if someone had meticulously surveyed students from schools all over the country to find out whether, on average, students were more satisfied with private colleges?

Fortunately, someone actually did that. In my book, Debt-Free U: How I Paid For An Outstanding College Education Without Loans, Scholarships, or Mooching Off My Parents, I look at a survey conducted by Noel-Levitz in 2007 where hundreds of thousands of students at different institutions were asked whether they were satisfied with their college experience. Here are the proportion respondents who were satisfied:
  • 53% of students at four-year public colleges
  • 52% of students at four-year private colleges
  • 59% of students at two-year public colleges
Does that mean that private colleges are bad? No -- a 1% differential is hardly statistically significant. But here's the point: Picking a school by asking private college students whether they're satisfied with their experience is a hard argument to make because if you're going to choose based on that, you really should go with a community college.

Feeble Argument

I hear admissions officers, guidance counselors, and well-intentioned parents all the time say, "You'll have a better college experience at a small private college." Before you fork over the cash though, ask for evidence. They don't have any.

If "ask a random student whether a private college is worth it" is the best argument the president of Johns Hopkins University can make, I have to tell you: I'm not impressed. If I had just cut a fat check (or worse, taken out a loan) to pay for a private college education, I'd be scared.

Zac Bissonnette's book, Debt-Free U: How I Paid For An Outstanding College Education Without Loans, Scholarships, Or Mooching Off My Parents, is available for pre-order and will be in stores Aug. 31.

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mc1852

Sorry folks, the Titanic is sinking and no amount of puffery will save it. With online colleges proliferating and our worthy citizens understanging the stupidity of the Harvard and Yale graduates, while the degrees are earned a astronomical cost, a jaundiced eye is being cast upon the ivy leagues. Yes, the first position of a college graduate is generally determined by where and how one went to college. The second position upon the qualities, skill, competence and performance of the person at the first job. Would anyone here really hire Obama or Bush or any of a number of idiotic public officials as ... let's say ... an airline pilot or any other life safety critical positions? I think not. How about as your financial planner? Laughable. How about general contractor, doctor, nurse, architect, framer, plumber, landscaper, EMT, bus driver? Scary.

August 29 2010 at 1:31 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
mwallice

Our two oldest sons have gone to smaller private colleges. It seems like it would cost more to go there because the tuition is higher but actually it isn't because they have more grant money and scholarships available. As an example our oldest son was accepted to both Univ. of Ill and to Bradley University. Even though U of I was lower tuition, they offered him practically no grants or scholarship money. He went to Bradley for virtually no money out of pocket but had to take out a $2,000.00 student loan per year. If he had gone to U of I it would have cost him ten times that amount.

August 28 2010 at 4:28 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to mwallice's comment
standfordgrays

the worst part of going to Bradley is living in that landfill called Peoria, IL for 4 years.... Imagine a small town where everyone has an inferiority complex and takes the Jones game more serious than everywhere else out of their own insecurities... Only, there are no stores that sell nice suits and everything is off the rack from the local tractor store... and fashion is 10 years behind the rest of the world. Peoria, IL is where all the chain stores send their outdated merchandise... The town is literally full of farmers, drug addicts, and yuppies where the only thing to do is go watch a single A baseball game and become an alcoholic/drug addict..... Don't get me wrong.. the U of IL peoria is an amazing medical school, and Bradley is a quality business school... but all work and no play makes Johnny turn to drugs and alcohol... The only place you find sobriety in Peoria, IL is at the nut ward, which happens to be in the nice part of town for all the rich parents to visit their kids strung out on either heroin or wacked out from using too much LSD... Seriously.... if you want your child to stop living for 4 years and concentrate on their studies... send them to Peoria.... just don't be surprised when they come back physically addicted to something because of the boredom factor.....

August 29 2010 at 3:30 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
jbfam14

If you can get into a private college and have the money whether it be family money or scholarships than go. If you want to spend less money than go to a public college. Either way it doesn't matter what stupid articles say. You have to do what's better for you. If you think going to Suny Buffalo will benefit you more than going to NYU than go to SUNY Buffalo or vice-versa.

August 28 2010 at 4:24 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
mikeallentoff

I attended a very well regarded private college for two years, and it was the most unhappy two years of my life. After that, I attended only public universities, and they were superior in all ways. Private schools tend to attract self-centered spoiled students who don't know the value of a dollar and believe in the exploitation of everyone else for their personal gain (95% of Wall Street Bankers attend private elite universities!) Public university students have less money, are more interested in community service, and know that dollars don't grow on trees.

August 28 2010 at 1:06 PM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply