In 2008 there were five institutions whose total cost (tuition, room, board and fees) registered above $50,000. In 2009, 53 additional colleges joined that heady list, with Sarah Lawrence coming in at $55,788 per year. Four years at Sarah Lawrence totals $223,152 (in the unlikely event that prices don’t increase). Ouch!
Many parents may balk, because annual costs at a public university are usually less than half those at a private college. However, many privates offer substantial merit-based and need-based aid. This, coupled with the fact that public universities generally offer less aid, can sometimes, surprisingly, make out-of-pocket costs higher at public universities than at private colleges.
The hard lesson is that the merit-based aid is not going to come from a student’s dream school. Private colleges offer merit-based aid to lure top students. They are giving the aid to students whose grade-point averages and standardized test scores are above their averages. Colleges will create a financial-aid package for most accepted students, but the package is likely to contain more loans than grants.
So, are the elite schools really worth the big bucks?
According to Gregg Easterbrook of the Brookings Institution, “Winning admission to an elite school is imagined to be a golden passport to success; for bright students, failing to do so is seen as a major life setback.”
Alan Krueger, a Princeton economist, compared students who entered Ivy League and similar schools and discovered this: The fact “that you go to college is more important than where you go.”
Success, it seems, is much more about the student and his or her motivation and work ethic than about the prestige of the school attended. This is not to say that public colleges are the right place for everyone. In general, benefits of a private education include:
• A smaller student body and therefore typically smaller classes and more attention from professors.
• Higher retention rates and higher graduation rates. On average, 79 percent of students who attend a private institution graduate in four years, compared to 49 percent at state universities.
• Strength of the alumni network for job-hunting.
Finally, it’s a good idea that students apply to at least one “financial safety,” an in-state school where they know they will be accepted.