Reader-Submitted Question of the Day – Day 2

April 30, 2008

Here’s today’s Question of the Day. This one was submitted by reader, AJ Spring. The question portion of the email is in bold but read the entire email for the context.


I was blessed to have parents that wanted me to do whatever I wanted to, and as a result, I am well on my way to an excellent degree and a well-paying job. However, many of the parents at my high school encouraged their kids (some more forcefully than others) to either go to a public school or a school where they could get a lot of scholarship money. While some of these parents had legitimate financial restrictions, there were families living in 4,000 square foot houses insisting that their children go to State U. Other than the obvious money advantages, can you talk about the pros and cons of sending a child to a public vs. private university?

A.J. Spring


Consider yourself blessed. Not everyone can attend a private college. I see nothing wrong with a kid going to a public university as long as it has a good reputation. Your parents have obviously stressed to you the importance of an education and have made choices accordingly. Hopefully you’ll remember the choices your parents have made and will be able to help them financially if they ever need help.

Your point about people living in 4,000 square foot houses is well taken. Unfortunately, some of these parents are foregoing retirement planning in order to fund today’s lifestyle. I consider this a greater tragedy than not sending their kids to private college.

Now, to answer your questions regarding the pros and cons of public vs. private universities:

Public naturally cheaper unless you can get scholarships or grants. Many private schools are making efforts to help with tuition. However, this can only mean that more people will apply to go those colleges, which will increase the competition making it more difficult to get into those colleges.

A degree from a private college can open the doors to a high-paying job right out of school. It’s debatable the long-term benefits of a degree from a private college as work ethic and dependability also play a significant role in career advancement.

Finally, parents themselves can help pave the way for their kids’ success by teaching them how to become responsible adults—a skill that NO college can teach.

Now it’s time for AFM readers to weigh in. What are your thoughts on parents’ responsibilities in providing their kids with a college education?

18 responses to Reader-Submitted Question of the Day – Day 2

  1. I went to an Ivy League university. Unless the private college you attend is in the Ivy League (and I mean the Ivy League and not some top 25 school), then the tuition is not worth the money over public university. Especially in today’s tuition climate!

    Also, keep in mind the geography of universities. “Top” universities in Massachusetts will hold little sway if your ultimate plan is to return to Florida where your family lives. Go to school where you plan on settling, because the within-school network aspect of private universities is probably where most of the value is added (and not, as US News would like you to believe, in some form of general reputation).

    Study something practical and also something you love (accounting/history, math/english, engineering/spanish). The economics of WHAT you study is 99 times greater than the economics of WHERE you study.

    That being said, keep your eyes open for scholarships, grants, etc. Private universities can offer phenomenal opportunities. But always ask, at what price?

  2. My husband attended a private school at the insistence and bad advice of his parents. They could not afford to foot the bill and pulled out several student loans (totaling $80k)under his name. Although, he does take responsibility as he should of realized the ramifications since he was an adult. Though his parents did not teach him any financial responsibility, he has learned to be financially smart post college and $750/monthly payments of college loans later. Also, his career does NOT justify the amount of money spent on his private school degree. We both agree that unless you can afford to go to a private school and have a good reason to attend (i.e. scholarship, notariety) then a public school will be equally as good (if not better).

  3. I don’t know that I think that parents are “responsible” for providing kids with a college education. But I was very blessed to have my entire college education (3 degrees all from public universities) paid for due to an unusual scholarship. And as a parent, I don’t feel responsible but I do WANT to help my children pay for college. I want the best for them in every area of their lives from their health, relationships, education, and vocation. So if my saving for their college, helps them achieve that, I’ve done part of my job as parent.

    That said, my ability to save for their college is limited. I’m not a dotCom millionaire or high-earner. So when they are looking at universities, we’ll need to sit down and seriously discuss that if we have xxx$, it can go this far at a public university or that far at a private university. If my children feel that a private university justifies the expense, we’ll have to figure out how to pay for that together and I imagine that means student loans for them.

  4. Good question! I recently admitted over at my own blog that my very expensive private college education was a “waste” in the sense that I have to come see that it really didn’t matter where I went to school (it’s an excellent school but not Ivy League, and it has not opened doors for me – but that is also a matter of geography, as the first commenter pointed out). My parents read my blog so it was a little scary to come out and say this but they realize it too – though we all agree that it was a formative time and I benefited from the experience. It wasn’t a waste in the sense that the experience is now a part of who I am. But, I could have turned out just as well going to a less expensive school.

    I will add, however, that I did attend some classes at the local state university and I found the academic standard to be MUCH lower. At the state university, I could easily skip most classes and still get an A in subjects that come naturally to me (history and social sciences; I attended every biochem class and still barely managed a B, however at the private college, I probably would have gotten a C or lower).

    So I would say that as with most things, it’s really about the individual person. Is the student someone who is going to work hard? He or she will most likely get a first class education at a state university, and have good enough grades (and test scores if grad school is an option) to compete with someone from a private university.

    But if the student is someone who constantly needs to be challenged, he or she will probably be a very average student at State U. (or not learn very much, even if she or she gets good grades), while he or she will work harder at Private U., learn more, and quite possibly have better grades to show for it.

  5. I ended up going to a private school. Only because after all the financial aid it ended up being cheaper than public schools in my home state.

    I got 12000 in scholarships, 1500 in grants, 5500 in loans a year and 3500 in work study money. Then had to pay for housing and food out of pocket, about 8k+ per year. (Seattle is expensive). School cost about 23k my final year then housing.

    Had I gone to public school. It would of cost about 8-9k a year in tuition and another at least 6-7k in housing and food. I got a $1000 scholarship to the state school.

    So the costs ended up being about the same for private or public. So i guess it pays to do well in high school and get scholarships. It also helps to be poor and you get more financial aid.

  6. Wow! A.J. – a little bias towards private education?!

    Alex is absolutely right. Say, for example, one person spends $80,000 – $120,000 on a private education and another spends $40,000 – $60,000 on a public education. Chances are that the difference in the starting salary of each individual will be minimal (unless, as Alex pointed out, it is an ivy league private school); I’ll take the public education and less “status” over $100,000 in debt any day.

    Also, I believe that it is the parents responsibility to take care of their retirement first & then with helping their children through school. Granted, the Jones’ might be in a 4,000 sq.ft. house, but they might be living pay check to pay check as well…

  7. As with all things, it’s a matter of personal choice that individuals must make. I do get a kick out of parents who gripe about the cost of State U while dropping off the kids in their new Suburban.

    Let’s see, in state tuituion $8600 year or $750 month. Payment on the Chevy, $750 month. Ahh, Jr can get a student loan.

  8. I was fortunate to attend an Ivy school, despite coming from a single-parent, lower income household. This was back in the day when these schools felt that it would be a good idea (despite their rich endowments) for poor kids to have to foot a big part of the bill. So, I borrowed heavily (also worked long hours during school and summers). In the first couple of years after graduating, I resented the debt burden, and often wondered if it was worth it. Now, some 20 years later, I can safely say that it was worth every single penny. No way, no how would I have attained my present situation without this kind of education.

    I use the word “education” as opposed to “degree” because not only did the degree open some critical doors, but I learned and experienced a lot of things, and met a lot of people who completely shaped who I am and prepared me to compete and thrive in a very different world than the one I grew up in. As a kid with no knowledge of anything outside my immediate environ, no connections, and no clue of how the other half lived, this was invaluable.

    Had I stayed in po-dunk smallsville, and attended a local college, I believe my life would be very different. For example, I took a class one summer at my local hometown college and was so utterly bored out of my mind by the dispirited teacher and utterly uninterested students that I practically failed the class. This despite the fact that I was able to graduate with honors from one of the most competitive universities in the world – go figure. If I had stayed at the hometown school permanently, I doubt I would have even had the motivation to graduate. I think this happens to a lot of intelligent kids – they figure they’ll try the local school to see if they like it and end up being so turned off, they drop out and forgo college altogether.

    Much depends on your family resources, as well as what you want out of life. No doubt, attending a private college can break the bank and make it difficult to ever recover. If you are starting with limited means and are planning to enter a profession of limited financial upside, then costs matter greatly. Also, if you’ve already got a head-start by virtue of your family and connections, where you go to school may not matter so much. This is the case with my nephew-in-law. He’s a good kid, but not a hugely motivated student (and why should he be having been born with the proverbial silver spoon in mouth). He’s definately going to a public university. He has a big safety net and its a given than his family will collectively help him get a job when he graduates, and provide financial support at critical junctures of his life (to buy a car, home, etc.), so why spend the money on private. Some life if you can get it!

    But, if you have certain kinds of objectives, then the cost of a top school can ultimately be amortized over the life of a well-paying career, making it a viable choice. Also, at least with the Ivies, the fin’l aid packages have gotten a lot better than back in the day.

    While this is my personal experience, I recognize that, the choices are mind-boggling, its impossible to generalize, and clearly there are a lot of different ways to get an education. Each solution depends on dozens of individual variables.

  9. Well there are many public schools that are ranked as high or higher than private schools (in various areas). So if you are lucky enough to live in one of those states it’s often the best idea.

    For some examples: UC Berkeley, UCLA, UM Ann Arbor, UW Madison, UIUC, UT Austin, U of Washington are all in the same class as Ivy leagues or other top private schools for most areas. There are others you can add to the list.

  10. This like everything else all depends on what you’re going to study and what field you’re going into. I’m trying to get my foot in the door of the investment industry and there is a heavy bias towards ivy leagues (I went to a public university so I’ve having a hard time getting in). Over in tech, companies like Google only take the best pedigree (ivy education, high GPA, etc.).

    The flip side of this is you better know what you want to do with your education. If you change majors in school there’s a much larger penalty for it if you’re in a private university.

    I remember when I was applying to universities 9 years ago that starting at a public university and then transferring schools was an acceptable option. Has that changed?

  11. As someone who attended an Ivy League school, my opinion is that private schools are a waste of money. If your a smart kid you’ll do well no matter where you go. I’m not sure what the stud y is, but Malcolm Gladwell cites it in his New Yorker article

    When I was 18 and deciding where to go, I had a lot of scholarships to good schools (some private too.) Teachers advised me to take the scholarships, but i had my heart set on Dartmouth. At Dartmouth, the class size, advising systems and trimester system were all terrible. Perhaps I would have felt this way no matter where I went to college, but at least I wouldn’t have blown $140k!

  12. Kate, I think you are proof positive that the answers to this issue vary greatly depending on the individual.

    Incidentally, the article you mention also states that “Students from the very lowest economic strata do seem to benefit from going to an Ivy.” That was my experience. It opened up options that I might not have otherwise had. Much depends on whether you actually take advantage of the what the Ivies have to offer. If the alumni network, or concentration of grads in certain high-paying industries, or on-campus recruiting would mean little to you, then you’d be wasting half the value of attending an Ivy.

    And if you already have great family resources, educated parents, a network of grreat friends in your target career choice, and/or a career choice that won’t be heavily influenced by where college pedigree, etc., then I’d have to agree, there probably would not be much benefit to going Ivy.

  13. My son attended Public State U and got a fine education. It is what you do while you are in college. He see graduates of big name schools who have a poor background in computer programing, (his field). After your first job out of college, the name of your university makes little difference, unlewss you keep going back to your ivy league buddies for the next job.

  14. the big names can get you more or at least an interview going out the door, but does not guarantee you a job. after the first year, maybe the second year, people stop asking. i have yet to see any benefit from my substantial education and truly believe that the education ticket has been over sold. The sales pitch was good to get people into college, when college actually mattered. now a college degree is a rather sensitized concept in the work place.

    instead of worrying so much on getting into a big name school, parents and prospective students ought to be focusing on what kind of career and picking a college or university that will fit with that career path. does it really make sense to pay $30k+/yr to go to a private liberal arts school in a field that won’t yield more than $40k/yr? that’s the math we ought to be doing rather than worrying about pedigree.

  15. Having attended both an excellent public school (U of Michigan) and an Ivy League school I can tell you that it all depends. U of M is one of the most expensive public schools in the country, so public != cheap. However the quality of education I recieved at U of M is so far superior to that recieved at the Ive League school there is no comparison. As an undergrad at U of M I did more advanced and cutting edge research than my professors at the Ivy League school have done. Plus they are about 10 years behind the reseach curve.

    Your best bet is to figure out what you want to do (even if it’s only generally like engineering) and find the best schools for that field. Then concentrate on getting the best bang for your buck at those schools. For science, engineering and other “hard” fields concentrate on schools where the professors are basically required to have research grants. Both my Ivy League and my husband’s non-Ivy but well-respected private schools don’t require that professors have grants. The professors then suck but are snobs. People complain about research professors being bad teachers – but it’s excellent experience for the real world and way, way better than out of touch, self-absorbed bores.
    BTW – I do have college loans from U of M but they are less than half my take home pay (starting out). Ivy League is paid for by my employer. My husband (also went to U of M) has some student loans and is currently a phd student with a stipend approx. equal to the student loan balance (not paying now b/c they are in deferment). Even an expensive education doesn’t have to leave you with a ridiculus loan balance if you pick the right field.

  16. You have to consider what kind of college experience you want. I didn’t think in terms of “public v private” when I was choosing a college. But it was important to me to have small class sizes, a tight-knit student body, and to live on a campus I could walk across (as opposed to having to take a 15 minute bus ride). For those reasons most public schools were crossed of my list – though not all.

    And it’s not just about what salary you can get post-graduation. That hardly depends on where whether you go public or private (though it IS important to note that many employers and even entire industries only recruit at a handful of top schools). As an intellectual wanting to study the liberal arts and really get to know my professors, a smaller private college was what I preferred.

  17. I think it depends on (a) what public schools are available, and (b) what you think you might want to go into.

    I went to my state school, and I am VERY glad I did. But, I lived in a state with a good public university, and I ended up going into science – where I found that the combination of being at a large university with a lot of active research, plus being not the only high-achieving student but still not one of 120 students per class clamoring for extra attention added up to some just fantastic research experiences that really propelled me forwards (I have a suspicion that almost anything non “contact” dependent may end up somewhat similar to this, but I can only speak first-hand regarding science). I also feel strongly that for me, being “in charge” of my own education was an important part of learning to shape my own career goals and move myself along in my pursuit of them – and I feel like some of my friends that went to more expensive private universities (including ivy leagues) were often babied for longer, which wasn’t necessarily good for them (although – this probably depends on the person!)

    At this point, however, I think my school experiences were some of the best of anyone I know, whether they went to public or private universities, and have certainly not held me back in any way – and, it’s definitely helped me out a lot to have come through with no debt. My current career trajectory (which I am thrilled about) is not one that would be nearly as possible if I’d come out of undergrad with debt.

  18. Hey, this is the same A.J. that asked the question. Having thought about my question for a while and reading some of your comments, I’d like to add to the discussion.

    -While we could have paid a lot less for me to go elsewhere, I’ve experienced things in college that I wouldn’t trade for anything. The people I’ve met, the things I’ve done, the doors that have opened to me, you can’t put a price on any of that.

    -Eden is absolutely right. I think people get too caught up in overall college rankings when they should really worry about the rankings in what they want to do. After all, does it really matter if State U is ranked in the top ten if the major you want is known across the region for being weak? It just so happened that the school I landed myself at has ranked in the top 2 in CPA pass rate 9 years running. That’s great for me as an accounting major, but the students in other departments, especially ones that don’t have a solid reputation, might have been better served (both financially and in terms of their future) heading to a public school.

    -I strongly disagree with the assertion that Ivies are the only private schools that are worth the money. Again, it depends on what you want to do, but there are plenty of private school educations that are comparable. A big reason the Ivies have better reps is because they’re a century older. That doesn’t make them any better. I think where it might be a good idea to seriously consider public school is when you’re thinking about a lesser known private school.

    -I agree with some of you that public school educations can be just as good – but that seriously depends on where you live. If you’re in Michigan, Virginia, North Carolina or California, then State U. is a great option. In a lot of states, however, it might not be that great of an option.

    To wrap up, I think it all depends on what you want out of school. If you just want a serviceable degree just so you can get a job, then state u is probably a good idea. But, money issues notwithstanding, if you know what you want out of those four (or more) years, then go for it, regardless of whether it’s public or private.