Ask the grumpies: Private vs. public colleges

Sandy L. asks

Cost benefit of public vs private college. What is the value of the network, etc.

The question isn’t really about public vs. private.  Berkeley is going to open a lot more doors and have a much more impressive network than the expensive small regional private liberal arts college one of my sisters-in-law went to.  The question is really about the prestige of the school.  There’s a lot of interesting new research on that topic.  And the answer is that, first off, we don’t really know, and second off, it is nuanced.

In general, for your white upper-class/upper-middle-class kid, it doesn’t really matter where they go.  Harvard, top flagship, regional state school– it just doesn’t matter.

For your lower income family, minority, etc. etc. etc. student, it can matter quite a bit.

But even with that mattering, some schools are better than others at elevating kids into higher socioeconomic status.  And some schools (like Harvey Mudd) are phenomenal at elevating low SES kids, but don’t actually admit very many of them (that $72K/year sticker fee and all).

I’m too lazy to source and cite this, but if you’re interested in finding out more, flip through the NBER working papers abstracts for the education group.  If you need to narrow your search window down, Carolyn Hoxby is a good place to start– she’s written extensively on this topic and cites a lot of the other work that has been and is being done.


21 Responses to “Ask the grumpies: Private vs. public colleges”

  1. Ali Says:

    This is a dumb question, and I promise I don’t mean this in a bad way—but if it truly doesn’t matter, why are you saving in order to send your kids to the “best”? I am curious as to why (or it’s just for their own personal fulfillment and happiness). I am struggling with this because we have young kids (3&5) and already have enough in their 529s to send them to our state flagship, even adjusting for inflation. Our financial adviser has advised us against addin more since the whole idea of college will likely change a good bit before either of our kids is old enough to go. Curious about your thoughts on this.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Because we’re only first gen well-off, because we don’t just care about salary outcomes, because we don’t live in California or Michigan and R1 in the south are similar to high schools in the Midwest, because I was blessed to be able to go to whichever college I wanted, because we can.

    • xykademiqz Says:

      I suppose some kids want to go to private schools, for reasons or geography or a special major in mind or whathaveyou. My Eldest finished college apps in October. He applied to two schools, both public (the flagship where I work and that of a neighboring state, where we can pay in-state tuition as per states’ agreement). He got into both very early (main major, molecular bio), so in November he already knew he’d go to a great place. Then had to audition for music schools, that was a couple of weeks ago; so far got into one, still waiting to hear from the second one.

      He didn’t even want to consider private schools. There are some with great music programs that are not too far, but he simply wouldn’t hear of it. He wanted these two and only these two and that was that. He’s a socially skilled and chill kid, I think he’ll do great. Honestly, I was far more stressed about the college choice than him (or his dad).
      He has great study habits, and a state flagship provides pretty much any major he could want and all sorts of research opportunities, as well as extras (music, drama, sports). He will do great. Would he have done better and ruled the world by going to Harvard? Perhaps (although unlikely given his demeanor), but no one could have made him even apply to a place like that, so that’s neither here nor there.

      Not sure what my point is other than that we as parents tend to stress about this far too early and far too much. I think the kids know what they want and we should be there to help them decide if they wobble, but ultimately they’ll cross that bridge when they get to it, and it’s most definitely their bridge to cross.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        I want my kids to be able to go wherever they want without worrying about the sticker price.

      • xykademiqz Says:

        I want my kids to be able to go wherever they want without worrying about the sticker price.

        It’s great that you can afford to send your kids anywhere they want to go!

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        It is a combination of luck and prioritization. There are plenty of people with our incomes and greater incomes who can not/will not do that, and depending on where they go (ex. Harvey Mudd) we may still need to take out loans and we are fine with that. Other people have different priorities. Other people have better state institutions. It would cost us the same to send our kid to UMichigan or UWisconsin as it would to many private schools because they’re out of state with no reciprocity.

        I honestly do not care where other people send their children. I just want to pass on what my parents (who for the majority of my life lived on my mom’s R3 humanities salary minus what they put away for savings) did for my sister and me. Especially since we can do it while also having a dishwasher and dryer and microwave and dvd player and computers and so on, so we’re not even sacrificing as much. Because we have higher incomes, that means we need to save more.

        I also have no idea where my kids are going to go for college (they are currently ages 11 and 6). We just want them not to be limited by our decisions, especially since they are unlikely to be eligible for much financial aid.

      • bogart Says:

        Yeah, that — I want my kid to be able to go wherever they want without worrying about the sticker price. My mom provided that for me, and I feel I should pass it on (given that I think I will be able to without suffering unduly). I actually went to a reasonably priced state flagship (not my own, but nonetheless reasonably priced) but I knew I could go anywhere I wanted, and I was grateful for that. And sort of understand that as an ongoing inter-generational commitment.

        I do, however, think that mostly what people do when they get to college matters more than where they go to college, consistent with @xykacademiqz’s comment.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        And that is empirically true for the advantaged, less so for kids who need more support than the local regional state school can offer.

      • bogart Says:

        Yes, good point.

  2. rose Says:

    Have friend who had one child attend Stanford, other UC Santa Barbara. Actual out of her pocket expenses for Stanford were lower due to financial aid. Children were 15 months apart in age so it wasn’t timing and both lived on their campus not at home. Stanford grad has had more reason to use Stanford networking for professional advantage and it has ABSOLUTELY made a difference in income and ability to raise their family where they wish. Private need not be more expensive, get admissions than look at packages and decide what is best for student and family.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      It cost me way less to go to a top SLAC than it would have to go to my flagship. Similarly, DH went to a “Regional Ivy” for way less than the flagship would have cost him. Places with big endowments can afford to support kids with lower or even mid-income parents.

  3. Revanche @ A Gai Shan Life Says:

    I do often wonder if any of my savings for JB are going to make any difference. In our family, it wasn’t until my younger low income and whip smart cousins went to one of the Claremont 5 that any in my family in SoCal aspired to more than the local state college. (Heck, my sibling crashed and burned after ONE quarter at the local state college. We do not have a good track record.)

    Other cousins went to private colleges out of state and are still paying off the loans 20 years later. I’ve done a lot better than them because of the decisions I made since college, my college pedigree played little to no role in my career that I can tell. But who knows! Maybe I could have a much more lucrative and successful career if I’d gone big. I don’t care that I don’t know for myself but I worry that I haven’t got much insight in what matters in the choosing of colleges for JB.

    • Revanche @ A Gai Shan Life Says:

      *Edit to say – not ANY of my savings but rather how much of it is worth the fuss. I sure hope that ze will make use of it.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Those Claremonts are super generous with financial aid to low-income kids.

      The other day I idly looked up a woman who I really admired back in middle school Quiz Bowl. She was a year older and way smarter than I was. She ended up going to UKentucky because UKentucky at the time was giving full rides to National Merit Scholars, then going to Harvard for law school, and is now a wealth management lawyer for rich people. She no doubt makes far more money than I do.

      It’s hard to tell at this age, but I have a strong suspicion that JB will be fine no matter what.

      • Colleen Says:

        IDK, I was a middle income kid that basically got soft-rejected from Mudd. The financial expectation was that I would pay 25k more per year than at schools like Carleton or Swarthmore. Mudd was my dream school, I called them up to ask about it, there was no movement, and there was no way I was going to be able to make that work.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        I know some people who got full rides at Mudd. If you play with their financial aid calculators they’re not very generous for middle and high income kids (this is why I keep using them as an example as our most expensive option—72k/year and no financial aid even if DH loses his job). I assume that’s how they can afford to pay so much for low income, given they’re not as well endowed as some other schools. MIT and Caltech are pretty stingy but have a slightly lower tuition and we would qualify for some aid if DH loses his job. Really only Princeton, Harvard, and Stanford would give us any aid if we’re both working.

  4. becca Says:

    I like for research here too.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      It has some super cool charts! (You can see HMC being an outlier in one of them.)

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        Oops, it looks like this website is just the scale and doesn’t have the scatterplots that show how many low income kids go compared to how well low income kids do. (It does have a ton of research links though, so maybe there’s a link to that page.). Some schools really boost low income kids but don’t have a lot going. There’s similar charts for financial aid for low income kids compared to number of low income kids. (My undergrad does really well, which makes sense because otherwise I wouldn’t have gone there or been in this position.)

  5. Xin Says:

    I have… so many thoughts about this topic, though mostly just based on anecdotal experience. Most of my close friends (a group that leans heavily Asian-American) went to elite private undergrads (ivies or top liberal arts colleges) and the rest ended up at one of the top University of California schools. This group is about 70-30 people who were eligible for so much need-based financial aid that their elite private educations cost a lot less than state school (including K and I) versus people whose parents paid for the whole thing and offered further financial support during graduate school. Nobody is burdened by undergrad loans, though the people from the first group owe a lot if they chose to get a JD (alas!), MD, or MBA. In general, we have all proven capable of the same outcomes in terms of jobs and graduate school admissions.

    I also have some additional anecdotes by comparing my law school classmates, at a top NYC-area law school: there wasn’t any noticeable differences in terms outcomes for people depending on where they went to undergrad, people from a whole range of undergrads were well-represented at the top of the class, on law review, getting the best job placements and clerkships, etc. The noticeable difference is in how well-represented each type of undergrad is: we had what felt like large handfuls of classmates from each(!) of the ivy leagues in my class year, but tiny numbers of people from top state schools. Law school admissions is supposed to be so closely based on grades and LSATs that I always found that a bit surprising…

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