Sunday, March 11, 2007

College Life

Private Vs. Public College: A Debate About Prestige, Opportunity, And Debt

By Mark Moran

With the average college student's post-graduation debt on the rise, what is causing some students to choose to get their degrees at private schools that are more expensive? According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, half of college graduates have some sort of student loans. The average loan, according to the study, is about $10,000.

While a majority of students will be starting out their adult life with a debt of around $10,000, some students will be entering the work world in an even deeper financial hole. These students with the heaviest of financial burdens are likely to have taken out loans for a private college university. Although the average tuition for a public school is a startling $13,000 a year, the average $28,000 a year tuition for a private school is enough to make any parent or student's jaw drop.

Despite the findings of articles like “The Debt Explosion Among College Graduates” in which author Heather Boushy found that debt has risen 55% in the last decade among private college graduates, students are still taking out loans to enroll in private colleges universities.

Students like Jason Muise, a sophomore at the private Marymount Manhattan College. Muise, a Boston native from a middle class family, loves the Red Sox and singing, is on the Dean's list at Marymount, and his college debt is reaching the $20,000 dollar mark with two more years of tuition to go. “I'm glad I chose Marymount. I don't feel like I made a mistake,” says Muise. He pauses, shifting his eyes up, and then back down towards the question at hand, “well most of the time.”

He elaborates, “The tuition is pretty high and because of my parents' income, I barely get any financial aide.” Finances aside, Muise feels like he is getting something more for his money than he would at a public school. “At a public college I would most likely be in huge lecture hall and being talked at in every class. My professor probably wouldn't even know my name.” After another contemplative pause, Muise continues, “I guess the higher tuition allows Marymount to stay small. Because of the small environment, I feel more connected to my professors and peers.”

A more intimate learning environment is one of the benefits of a small private college, and some are willing to pay for it. However, private universities colleges would not be receiving half the number of applications for enrollment if the sole differentiation from their public counterparts were a small-scale student to teacher ratio. So many students seem to take out loans to attend these private schools for one main reason: the school's elite connotation.

St. Joseph's University sophomore Kelly Brown thinks just that. “What I am paying extra for is an education that is perceived by employers as better. I want to go to graduate school, I don't mind paying a little extra to get my foot in the door.” Muise is no exception to this common justification, “If I ever decide to apply to grad school, I think I'm more likely to get accepted if I graduated from a more prestigious private school.”

Muise’s outlook has the support of common assumptions and some researchers. According to the article published in Economics of Education Review, “Does it Pay to Attend an Elite Private College?” author Eric Eide's research claims a private college gives a student a leg up getting into graduate school. “Private college significantly increases the probability of attending graduate school, and more specifically, graduate school at a major research institution,” writes Eide and his colleagues of their research.

Although private schools like Harvard and Princeton still top the lists of “America's Best Colleges” by publications like Time and US News & World Report, the formula for success does not necessarily have to include hefty private school tuition.

Mary Cox, a sophomore and fine arts major at the public Virginia Commonwealth University doesn't think so. “For what I'm majoring in, VCU is one of the best schools in the country.” She is not wrong; VCU's art program sits at the top of U.S. News' list of “Best Schools of Art”. Another benefit of Cox’s choice to go the public school path is she is getting the biggest bang for her buck. VCU's yearly tuition is $5,819 for instate residents. Cox cites the cost as one of the deciding factors in choosing VCU, “It's just so much more inexpensive than a private art school.”

If Muise and Cox were to pay for school entirely with student loans, excluding the cost of meal plans and dorms, their debt when they graduate will be very different. Four years of schooling would cost Cox a total of $23,276. A large amount of money, but nothing compared to the $74,992 Muise will owe when he receives his diploma. Which is a better mindset to approach higher education, cost-effectiveness or prestige? The answer to that question is merely a matter of opinion. These two students both feel confident when they say, “I made the right choice”, but when thrown into the “real world” who will be singing the same tune.

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