Public or Private? College Applicants Consider the
> 12/15/2006 2:47:23 PM

Everyone involved in any way with the college application process knows that rising prices show no sign of slowing down. Despite the fact that student aid has increased at a level exceeding that of tuition, families are finding it increasingly difficult to put their children through school without incurring huge amounts of personal debt. A distressing statistic from the New York Times:

Tuition and room and board at private four-year colleges now add up to more than $30,000 a year on average, and rose by 81 percent, more than double the inflation rate, between 1993 and 2004.

As a viable alternative, many students look to attend public and state schools rather than private liberal arts universities, and quite a few are satisfied with their choices. The argument over quality of education and relative price is hardly new, but the precarious balance between risks and payoffs seems to be more dramatic right now than at any previous point in the history of American higher education. The relative benefits of each may seem clear: private schools, especially those scoring highest on the various ranking scales, offer name recognition, better qualified professors, deeper networking possibilites, and more personal attention paid to each student. Public schools are less expensive and more practical, allowing attending students to train for a career without the trappings and expenses of higher-tier universities. But is the difference in quality of education really that great? Some say no.

For one, many private schools have class sizes that, on average, are just as large as  those at the public schools they claim to better. Public schools often offer more varied courseload choices. Larger campuses and student bodies can make for greater opportunity, including an increased emphasis on school groups and athletics. Public schools are usually local and make for shorter commutes. If affordable housing is an issue, students can live and work at home while completing their degrees.

On the other hand, private schools are almost always more structured and demanding, which is a good thing to students concerned about performance. And they do, of course, attract some of the country's best teachers working for some of the country's highest salaries, which is one of the many justifications for higher prices. The prospect of developing a personal relationship with one's professors is much more likely at private schools, which also usually offer considerably more elaborate departments devoted to career planning and helping students through the college experience.

The fact is that most high school graduates cannot consider private schools without receiving student loans that can add up to serious debt for years to come. At the same time, those who are serious about their educations and have the qualifications for acceptance at more selective schools often see the benefits outweighing the inevitable compromises included in the package. At day's end, the choice, financial restrictions considered, is left to the students and their families. Extensive research is a prerequisite, as no student should have to make an uninformed decision.

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