Comparing the Costs: Public vs. Private College

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By Luanne Lee, Your College Planning Coach


All too often parents tend to focus on the sticker price of college tuition instead of the actual total out-of-pocket cost. A simple but critical formula to know before your child applies to any school is “Cost of Attendance” minus “Estimated Family Contribution” equals “Need.”

(COA – EFC = Need.)

The estimated family contribution is what the government says you are financially responsible for after you file the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA. The need is the difference or gap in what it will cost to send your child to a particular college compared to what your family is expected or can afford to pay.

To better understand the differences between private and public colleges, including the types of assistance each may be able to offer, use this quick list comparison of a four-year education:


Private Colleges

  1. The national average COA is about $38,000 yearly.
  2. The “sticker price” (cost before financial aid) is higher than at public schools.
  3. Can offer more aid due to endowments and private donations.
  4. Students are more likely to graduate with a degree in four years or less.
  5. The bulk of assistance is primarily based on financial need, with aid that meets 70 percent to 100 percent of families’ college financial need.
  6. Fewer students per class and lower student-to-professor ratios than public universities.


Public Colleges

  1. COA averages nationally about $18,000 per year.
  2. Largely supported by state funds, can offer lower tuition rates—particularly to in-state residents.
  3. Special entrance consideration is at times given to in- state applicants.
  4. Some schools price match in-state tuition rates for out- of-state students.
  5. Offer aid, on average, that meets 40 percent to 70 percent of families’ college financial need.


This comparison and formula can help you decide which college option is more affordable for your family, depending on your family’s particular situation.

Luanne Lee, CCPS, Your College Planning Coach, specializes in late-stage college planning. She coaches parents and students on financial aid and college selection. Lee can be reached at 703-928-9036 or through her website,  She’s  also  on  Facebook.


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