Public vs. private college can be a complex decision

I meet with all varieties of families; some who are admittedly overwhelmed by the entire college admissions process and others who feel as if they’ve done their homework and have a pretty good understanding of what needs to be done.

The commonality between them, is that when looking at colleges, most feel forced to choose between price or prestige. They will often say we can choose either an in-state school for financial reasons or mortgage our future to purchase an elite education.

The good news is that for most families those choices are off-base and far too simplistic. Students can receive a great education at public universities and there is a lot of money available through merit-based and need-based scholarships that makes many of the privates quite affordable.

The first assumption to dispel is that a public education, simply because it is less expensive, is a lesser education. Not true. By the same token, families should not assume that paying $65,000 per year guarantees them a stellar education or a high paying job post-graduation.

There is a small group of elite public schools, often referred to as the “Public Ivies” that include: University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, University of Virginia, University of Michigan, University of California-Berkeley and University of California – Los Angeles. These schools always do well in rankings and are very competitive for in-state students and even more selective when they are looking at out-of-state applicants.

Public universities have made great strides to lure and retain the best and the brightest from their own states and other states as well by offering merit-based scholarships and other perks. The biggest carrot that public institutions are offering is the Honors College – it is often times likened to an elite private college within the university.

At the University of South Carolina (USC), which offers one of the strongest honors programs, it is a rather arduous application process once the initial college application is completed. USC’s Honors College asks students for two 375 word essays on their “intellectual pursuits and promise.” Then it asks for a 500 word essay on “the most significant items that you've read since the start of your junior year,” and an analysis of one item, plus two more 375 word essays on a student’s “Leadership and Engagement.”

And then finally a 500-1,000 word extended essay. Clearly the application is a weeding-out process. There is no way you’re going to apply and do that much work if you’re not really serious about attending.

Moral here is to do your homework and don’t make assumptions about price or value.

Next week: Greater prestige and cost doesn’t guarantee happiness or financial success.