Why a Public College Costs More Than an Ivy for Some Middle-Class Kids

The defunding of state higher ed institutions means Harvard might be cheaper.
Students walk through the Harvard University campus, a private university in Cambridge, Massachusetts. (Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
Sep 28, 2016· 3 MIN READ
A veteran journalist and former White House correspondent for Politico, Joseph Williams is a freelance writer, blogger, and essayist in Washington, D.C.

The good news: If you’re the parent of a college-bound student, it could be cheaper to send your young person to an Ivy League school than to your friendly neighborhood public institution, a potential bargain for families struggling to pay for tuition, room, and board.

The bad news: That down-is-up scenario, where a public education might cost more than a private one, is yet another sign that college costs are out of control. It’s forcing underfunded land-grant universities to hustle, pushing themselves to compete with their affluent, privately endowed peers. Throughout September and October, the Association of Public & Land-Grant Universities is running a Public University Values campaign, which seeks to spotlight the value of public higher education institutions.

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State disinvestment and federal neglect “have led us to a situation in which public colleges are no longer affordable for working- and middle-class students,” said Mark Huelsman, a senior policy analyst specializing in college affordability at Demos, a New York–based think tank. Public colleges, he said, “are often public in name only, because states have allowed funding to deteriorate over a 30-year period.”

For kids from low-income families, the inability of public colleges to match private ones when it comes to affordability is the latest indicator that a postsecondary education is slipping further out of reach—even as a college degree has become a prerequisite for a good job and a decent living.

A fact sheet on the Public University Values campaign website cites College Board data that “in-state tuition and fees at public four-year universities averaged $9,410 during the 2015–16 school year, compared with $32,410 at four-year, private nonprofit universities.” With financial aid, in-state students at public four-year institutions on average “paid just $3,980 in tuition and fees during the 2015–16 academic year, compared with $14,890 at four-year, private nonprofit universities.”

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“It’s really highlighting the fact that it is net [college] price that matters, not bigger price,” and navigating the system of financial aid has become more difficult, said Dewayne Matthews, an education specialist at the Lumina Foundation. “That’s a hard message to get across to people. Most of the message [of college affordability] is so tied to tuition prices and sticker price.”

At the same time, Harvard University’s website states, “Ninety percent of American families would pay the same or less to send their children to Harvard as they would a state school.” One analysis of college costs by the Bay Area News Group in 2012 found that a family of four making $130,000 a year would pay $24,000 a year to send a son or daughter to college in the California State University system—or $19,500 to the University of California, Berkeley. Because Harvard is private and wealthy, it can offer a more robust financial-aid package than can either the Cal State or University of California system, which depend on government funding. As a result, the same student from the same family could attend Harvard for $17,000.

Stefani Relles, who studies college access and affordability at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, said getting to attend Harvard at more than half off tuition seems like a great deal—unless it’s a bad fit, and the student ends up dropping out. “At the wrong private school, the financial-aid package that may be financially more but doesn’t yield a degree might not be a bargain,” she said.

At the same time, said Demos’ Huelsman, “some private colleges offer generous financial-aid packages and can provide an attractive option for students, but many of those institutions are not accessible to low-income students or students of color.” Those students might come from schools that prepared them for an elite college, or they might not have the know-how to get the cut-rate tuition, particularly if their family hasn’t sent anyone to college.

Private colleges offering tuition at public-school prices “admit very few working-class students,” Huelsman said; Lumina’s Matthews said colleges usually reserve reduced tuition for students who make their admissions data look good, such as athletes or out-of-state applicants.

Huelsman said the ability of public schools to get an edge on private schools when it comes to tuition means the nation needs to reinvest in public colleges.

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“What we need is a recommitment to make the colleges that serve the vast majority of students more affordable, better funded,” he said. “We should reward those private institutions that serve and graduate high numbers of low-income students and students of color—particularly those that don’t have a lot of endowment wealth to draw upon.”

Matthews also said students and families need a new system to make college costs more obvious and accessible, a proposal President Barack Obama has said should be a national priority.

“We need to have much greater transparency over costs. People really should know what it actually costs to go to college,” Matthews said. “We should do a much better job of making that information available” to help people make better decisions.

“The second thing is, more of the aid that does support students should be allocated on the basis of need rather than so-called merit,” Matthews said. “Who could be opposed to merit—merit’s a good thing. But [we] assume scholarships for academically gifted students, and that’s not necessarily the case.”

Ultimately, he said, the college industry must acknowledge “an inconvenient truth to all of this: College costs too much. You’ve got to lower it. We need to find ways to drive down the cost of higher education.”