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Why Attending a Private College Might Not Be Worth the High Cost

Aug 26, 2016

In a finding that raises questions about the return on investment at many expensive private colleges, a recent study reports that graduates of most kinds of public colleges had better luck finding jobs, and were burdened with less student debt, than the graduates of similar private colleges.

The study looked at Class of 2008 college graduates and where they were as of 2012.

While private colleges often outperform on other measures, such as graduation rates, study author Judith Scott-Clayton an assistant professor at Teachers College, Columbia University, said her research showed that, “Bottom line, you can't assume that private institutions are always automatically better just because they are private or expensive. It is important to ask questions about both graduation rates and post-college outcomes.”

Her study is just the latest in a growing body of research that challenges many common assumptions, as well as the marketing claims of some private colleges.

Last year, for example, PayScale.com reported that, according to its data, starting at about 2009, students' return on investment for public college degrees had started to exceed that for private colleges, in part because of public schools’ lower tuition.

And Anthony Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, said that his and other research have also raised warnings about the lack of extra payoff for many expensive, second-tier private colleges.

(In MONEY's latest analysis of the best-value colleges, 11 of the top 20 schools are public universities.)

Research into the relationship between college and alumni career success is important because surveys show that preparation for a meaningful, lucrative career is one of the main goals of college students. And almost every college now boasts about the job market success of its alumni.

Many experts caution that families should remember that college is about more than job preparation, and so should try to find affordable schools that serve all of their students' interests and needs. And families focused on career outcomes need to bear in mind that that college payoff calculations are affected not only by factors such as the school's selectivity, cost, and services, but by how much effort the student puts into it.

Carnevale's research, for example, indicates employers increasingly care about the skills students develop in college and their majors, rather than the type of school they attend. His advice: “If you have kid who is focused and hardworking, send him to a public school. If you have a student who needs attention and services, send him to a private college, where you’ll probably pay more, but they’ll get more attention,” and thus have a better chance of graduating.

In her examination of 9,000 members of the class of 2008, Scott-Clayton found that, overall, a higher percentage of the public college graduates were employed in 2012 than their private college counterparts. The biggest differences were seen among graduates of non- or minimally selective colleges, which account for about 16% of enrollment. Between 20% and 24% of those private college graduates appeared to be floundering—neither employed nor in graduate or professional school—compared with a 13% to 16% rate seen in graduates of similar public colleges.

The report did find some advantages to private colleges. For example, graduates of at least moderately selective private colleges who managed to find full-time jobs tended to earn more than graduates of similarly selective public colleges with full-time jobs. Scott-Clayton also noted that, overall, private universities graduate 69% of their freshmen, seven percentage points higher than public universities.

That differential could even out some of the advantages she found that public college graduates enjoyed, since entering freshmen can't be sure they'll be the ones who actually make it to graduation and get the job market advantage.

Representatives of private colleges questioned parts of Scott-Clayton's study. Frank Balz, vice president for research and policy analysis at the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, the largest association of private colleges, noted that Scott-Clayton’s study looked only at students who had been out of college for four years, which, he said, is too short a time period.

Georgetown’s Carnevale agreed that four years is a small sample of an expected 45-year working life. And he speculated that a 10-year study might make private colleges’ numbers look better. But he said that “four years is enough to give an indication,” and his own research confirms Scott-Clayton’s general findings, especially for lower-tier private colleges.

Many expensive private schools without prestigious names “are in trouble because they cannot demonstrate economic value,” he said.

Here is a chart comparing the performance of different types of public and private colleges. The student data is for those who earned bachelors' degrees in 2008.

Public minimally selectivePrivate minimally selectivePublic moderately selectivePrivate moderately selectivePublic highly selectivePrivate highly selective
Graduation rate38%53%64%69%77%83%
% of graduates employed in 201279%75%84%81%79%75%
Median 2012 earnings$36,000$31,000$36,500$38,500$39,000$38,480
Has earned or is currently earning a graduate degree31%27%34%34%44%45%
% who borrowed for undergraduate costs71%79%64%76%58%61%
Median debt$21,400$29,400$30,800$34,500$18,300$23,200

NOTE: The % who borrowed for undergraduate costs for the highly selective schools was corrected at 5:17 p.m. 8/26/16.

Source: Judith Scott-Clayton

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