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

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.

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