Cost-Benefit Analysis: Comparing Private and Public Universities

It’s not uncommon for students and families to feel shocked at a private university's stated tuition — but that’s not the whole story. Learn how to analyze cost when it comes to higher education.

Deciding which college to attend is a big decision. Your undergraduate years are ones in which you gain a sense of self, form lifelong relationships, and prepare for the challenges of adulthood.

Beyond laying the foundation for your adult identity, postsecondary education can create crippling amounts of debt. So, for every college-bound student, cost needs to be taken into account.

How Much Does College Cost?

According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), the average total annual cost for a non-profit, 4-year private college (including tuition, fees, living expenses, books, transportation, and miscellaneous personal expenses, but excluding financial aid) was $42,962 in 2013. This is a whopping sum compared to the average yearly total of $21,683 for an in-state student at a 4-year public university.

While the cost of books is about the same at private and public colleges, expenses at the former are higher on just about other every measure — with the largest differential arising in tuition and fees, at $29,115 and $8,005 respectively.

Check out this infographic about the value of higher education to learn more.

What’s Behind the Cost?

State universities receive public money, or tax dollars, to support the cost of higher education. Private colleges don’t have this benefit. But this isn’t the whole story. Over the last twenty years, states have been kicking in less money for higher education, causing a dramatic increase in tuition and fees at public universities. While tuition at both public and private universities has risen, these budgetary changes have led to greater increases at state schools than at private universities.

Considering financial aid may also cause you to look at the price of college differently. According to Conor Brosnan, a guidance counselor at Algonquin Regional High School in Northborough, Massachusetts, private schools are often able to provide larger overall financial aid packages. “Being privately funded, private colleges often have more funds to disperse amongst future students than do public colleges.” Frequently, these funds come from what are known as endowments, or private donations, which have been built up over time through ongoing contributions and interest accrual. These sources enable private universities to offer more money to more students — and most importantly, to include scholarships or grants — basically free money — to prospective students.

Large endowments, along with other sources of financial aid, can result in stark differences between the sticker price — the total stated cost before financial aid — at private colleges and what you actually end up paying, known as the net price. Take, for example, Boston University: BU’s sticker price during the 2012–2013 school year was $59,530. Yet, the average net price that students paid after factoring in financial aid was $31,798.

If you want to know more about what you can expect to pay at the universities you are considering, check out Noodle’s college profiles. Each one includes a finance section detailing sticker price, net price by income bracket, and the percentage of students receiving financial aid.

What Else May Affect Your Expenses?

When it comes to analyzing cost, there are other factors you should weigh apart from tuition. Here are some considerations to include in your decision-making process:


The location of your prospective school may affect your expenses in different ways. For example, if your college is far from home and you are planning to travel back for holidays and breaks, this is a cost you will have to factor in.

If you attend a university that is close to home and are able to commute to school, this can save money you would otherwise spend on housing and long-distance travel. Note that some colleges have on-campus residency requirements for first-year students.

Finally, the cost of living in different locations can vary significantly. The prices at a New York City supermarket or drugstore will be quite different from those in Indianapolis.

Future Plans

One important consideration, Brosnan explained, is your field of study. If, for example, you’re going to be a teacher, you may want to take a good look at your expenses and possible future salary. “Chances are students going into a public university will get just as good, if not better, of an education at the public school for less than half the cost.”

As someone who spent a lot of time researching and weighing her undergraduate options, Emma Lien, a nursing major at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst (UMASS), who also strongly considered attending Fairfield University, a small, private liberal arts college in Connecticut, recommends considering your end goal. “Today, our world is becoming increasingly competitive, so much so that an undergraduate degree is often not adequate enough for many careers,” says Lien. If you see graduate school, and perhaps more debt, in your future, you may want to be more frugal when deciding where to pursue your undergraduate studies.

In the end, your decision will largely be based on balancing what you want in a college experience with what your family can afford. Private colleges have their benefits, but so too do state universities. Don’t let name recognition or prestige be the determining factors; what matters most is what a university can provide for you and your future, and the cost of getting there.


“Average total cost of attendance for first-time, full-time undergraduate students in degree-granting postsecondary institutions, by control and level of institution, living arrangement, and component of student costs: 2009–10 through 2012-13” U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. Digest of Education Statistics, 2012 (NCES 2014-015), Table 330.40.. Jan. 2015. National Center for Education Statistics

“Average undergraduate tuition and fees and room and board rates charged for full-time students in degree-granting postsecondary institutions, by level and control of institution: 1963-64 through 2012-13” U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. Digest of Education Statistics, 2012 (NCES 2014-015), Table 330.10. Jan. 2015. National Center for Education Statistics

Conor Brosnan, guidance counselor at Algonquin Regional High School. In person interview, January 28, 2015.

Emma Lien, nursing major at University of Massachusetts-Amherst. Email interview, February 9, 2015.

“Median annual earnings of full-time year-round workers 25 to 34 years old and full-time year-round workers as a percentage of the labor force, by sex, race/ethnicity, and educational attainment: Selected years, 1995 through 2012” U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. Digest of Education Statistics, 2012 (NCES 2014-015), Table 502.30. Jan. 2015. National Center for Education Statistics

"Student Loan Debt and the Class of 2013." The Project on Student Debt. The Institute for College Access and Success, Nov. 2014. Web. 17 Jan. 2015. The Institute of College Access and Success

Table A-4. Employment Status of the Civilian Population 25 Years and over by Educational Attainment. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Web. 17 Jan. 2015. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

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