The Value of a Private University

Students want many things from a university—but above all, they’re there to graduate with ample skills for a future career. When we look at the data, we find that, in general, private universities excel over public universities in these respects. Furthermore, the primary objection to selecting a private university over a public one—cost—is largely overstated.


Students at Private Universities Are Graduating at a Higher Rate Than Those at Public Universities—and They’re Graduating Much More Quickly

Let’s begin by taking a look at graduation rates. The 6-year graduation rate at private nonprofit institutions is 65%; at public institutions, it is 58 percent.


Only 50 out of roughly 580 public four-year universities across the country graduate a majority of their full-time students on time—that is, within four years. A mere 19% graduate on time at public non-flagship universities, with 36% graduating on time at public flagship research universities. On the other hand, 80% of those who graduate from private universities do so in four years.


Here are a couple reasons why private universities excel over public universities and why private universities are more affordable than is sometimes supposed.


More Rigor

According to The National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE), both college freshmen and seniors at private universities participate more frequently in deep learning activities than those at public schools. Deep learning activities “require students to focus not only on content but also [on] the underlying meaning of information.”


These activities involve higher-order reflection on the course material, as well as the learning process itself—such as is found with student “learning logs.” While maintaining learning logs, students reflect upon what they have learned and integrate this into their worldview, even allowing their perspectives to be challenged. Deep learning activities involve scrutinizing the strengths and weaknesses of their own views and seeing things from others' perspectives.

Naturally, this higher quality of learning activities found more commonly in private universities helps students master the required materials more efficiently, accelerating their path to graduation and better equipping them for a great career.


More Resources

One of the reasons why students do not graduate or graduate on time is lack of academic planning. Generally speaking, private universities have greater resources to provide the more systematic and even mandatory academic advising and counseling students need to graduate and to do so on time. When students experience that kind of individualized and structured academic advising, they are able to make more informed choices concerning transfer credits, course-load, and major, which will help advance them to graduation.


Private Schools Are Less Expensive Than You Think

There is a stigma surrounding private education that it is highly expensive and unaffordable for ordinary families. Yet the costs of private education are often overestimated. In fact, six in ten families rule out particular private colleges as too expensive, even though many do not realize that the actual costs are significantly less than they think.

The Difference Between Published Costs and Actual Costs of Tuition

The costs of private education are sometimes construed purely in terms of the tuition and fees published by the various colleges. Yet the list price does not accurately represent the reality of what students are actually paying. According to the Department of Education, private college students typically pay less than 60% of the list price of tuition and fees. List price and actual cost of tuition differ greatly. Thus mistaking the list price for the actual cost leads to an overestimation of the actual cost of private college for students.


Institutional, State, and Federal Grants

What accounts for the difference in the list price and the actual cost for private college students? The difference is largely grants. Private college students receive on average $17,100 per student in institutional grants annually—more than three times the $5,500 received by students at public universities. So considering institutional grants alone, the net price for private not-for-profit colleges is significantly lower than the price published on the colleges’ websites and brochures. And that is not even taking into account state and federal grants—$3,792 and $4,788 per year, respectively.

College Diplomas as Appreciable Investments

Furthermore, the average student loan debt per graduate of private college is $19,300—about the cost of a modest automobile. And whereas automobiles are investments that are worth less over time, college diplomas are investments that are worth more over time (even ill-reputed humanities degrees—especially philosophy—provide a large return on investment). More than 25% of private school graduates have zero student debt, in fact—and another 9% owe less than $10,000. College diplomas are worth far more than their cost in the long run—and most graduates leave college with minimal debt.


We've seen that when it comes to graduating and being prepared for a career, private universities excel over public ones, in general. We've also seen that the claim that private universities are unaffordable is overstated. As an investment, private university needs to be treated with foresight and discernment. Choice of major, for instance, as well as career planning and engagement with academic advisors on campus, have considerable influence over whether private education is an investment worth making. In general, however, many students prefer the value of a private university and will continue experiencing the advantages that go with such a choice.