Public colleges aren’t as cheap as you’d think. Here’s why

Students on the campus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Jonathan Drake | Reuters

Like many would-be college students, Abigail Mokuba, 16, says “cost is a concern” when it comes to which schools to consider.

The rising high school senior from Baltimore said she is still researching colleges but plans to apply to at least 20 different schools across the country — all of them public.

“I will definitely go to a public school,” Mokuba said. “Private schools are more expensive.”

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To that point, 78% of families surveyed said they had eliminated a school from consideration based on cost alone, according to a recent report by Sallie Mae, a higher education lender. Almost half, or 46%, of college applicants said affordability is their prime reason for selecting a school. 

“Affordability is the most important factor when it comes to choosing a school,” said Rick Castellano, a spokesperson for Sallie Mae.

However, public colleges may not always be the cheapest option.

Tuition doesn’t tell the whole story

Based on sticker price alone, tuition is significantly cheaper at public institutions — for in-state students.

Out-of-state students will find fewer bargains at public schools. Tuition and fees at four-year, public colleges for out-of-state students averaged $28,240 in the 2022-23 academic year, while the average tuition at a four-year private college was $39,400, according to the College Board, which tracks trends in college pricing and student aid. 

When adding in other expenses, the total tab can be more than $70,000 a year for undergraduates at some private colleges, and even, in some cases, for out-of-state students attending four-year public schools.

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But after factoring in scholarships and other aid available at private schools, “you can bring the cost down below what you would pay at a public college,” said Robert Franek, editor-in-chief of The Princeton Review.

When it comes to offering aid, private schools typically have more money to spend, Franek added. “Lots of private schools have great financial wherewithal and those resources get channeled into financial aid.”

At some private colleges, the average scholarship award is just more than $50,000, according to The Princeton Review, which brings the total out-of-pocket cost closer to $20,000.

“A lot of students and parents assume a state public university is going to be far less expensive than a high-priced private school,” Franek said. “That’s not always the case.”

What to consider when shopping for schools

1. Look at the net price

To determine your out-of-pocket costs, consider tuition and fees, as well as grants, scholarships and student loans.

“That’s the amount that you’re going to have to pay to attend the school. Use that to compare colleges,” said higher education expert Mark Kantrowitz.

If student loans are a factor, a good rule of thumb is to keep the total amount borrowed below your projected starting salary to afford repayment within 10 years. It will be harder to pay off the debt if it exceeds your annual income, Kantrowitz said.

2. Visit the campus

Experts suggest going to the college in person to get a better sense of the school and see if it’s a good fit.

“There are certain things that you can’t tell from any written materials,” added Kantrowitz. “Like how humid it is at that college, [and] do you like the food that is served in the cafeteria?”

3. Have three top picks rather than a single dream school 

Having more than one dream institution increases the likelihood of ending up at one of them.

This year, the school named by the highest number of students as their “dream” college was Stanford University, according to The Princeton Review — it’s also one of the hardest to get into.

“If you have one dream college, and it’s that one or nothing, chances are you’re going to be really disappointed,” Kantrowitz said.

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