In recent articles, we have been examining what the real total cost of graduation is by comparing similar students – one who chooses a private college and the other a public university. We explored the hypothetical scenarios of Larry and Lauren, studying literature and northern New York State, and then Selena and Sam, studying the social sciences in Chicago. In both scenarios, the total cost of graduation may have come as a surprise to those who think that public universities cost less. But to explore it in full, we want to now travel to the west cost to see how the prices stack up. Will the private college prove to be a more affordable option once again?
Emma and Ethan Dream of Becoming California’s Next Top Engineers
Emma and Ethan have always had a fascination with STEM subjects – science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. After growing up in Southern California, they would like to find schools nearby before heading north to find jobs in Silicon Valley.
Emma has chosen the University of California at Los Angeles, a large public university with about 27,000 full-time undergraduates and home to the Henry Samueli School of Engineering. Here are the key figures:
- Tuition and Fees (1 year): $12,700
- Total Price for an In-State Student (1 year): $32,000
- Percentage of Undergrads Receiving Financial Aid: 63%
- Average Net Price After Gift Aid (1 year): $14,900
However, statistics show that public schools increase costs at a rate of 3.6 percent per year. We can use this to calculate an estimate for Emma’s full four year cost.
- Year 1 Net Price: $14,900
- Year 2 Net Price: $15,400
- Year 3 Net Price: $16,000
- Year 4 Net Price: $16,600
- 4-Year Estimated Price (Total): $62,900
Turning to our other student, Ethan heard about Harvey Mudd College, a liberal arts school of about 800 students that focuses on science, engineering, and mathematics, located outside of Los Angeles in Claremont, California. Here are the numbers for his school:
- Tuition and Fees: $44,400
- Total Price for an In-State Student: $60,600
- Percentage of Undergrads Receiving Financial Aid: 77%
- Average Net Price After Gift Aid: $30,200
Given that private colleges increase at an average rate of 2.4 percent per year, we can also calculate his four-year cost.
- Year 1 Net Price: $30,200
- Year 2 Net Price: $30,900
- Year 3 Net Price: $31,600
- Year 4 Net Price: $32,400
- 4-Year Estimated Price (Total): $125,100
Looking at the numbers, it would appear that Ethan will pay about double for his education, but that is before we consider graduation rates and the likelihood that each will finish in four years’ time.
Looking at the statistics, Emma’s public school and Ethan’s private school actually have somewhat similar 4-year graduation rates: 83 percent for Harvey Mudd College and 71 percent for UCLA. However, it is important to understand that UCLA’s 71 percent rate is an average for all majors, not just engineering. In fact, research has found that students in STEM fields are more likely to graduate on time when they attend a smaller private college like Harvey Mudd College (80 percent) than a large public research university like UCLA (52 percent).
This means that there is a real possibility that Emma will need an extra year to finish her degree, which means another year of fees ($17,200 when increase is factored in), plus interest. Ethan, on the other hand, not only enjoyed the many benefits of studying engineering at a Liberal Arts College, but in year 5 he is more likely to be out in the workforce earning an income, and that will begin to offset any college debt he incurred. Since the average starting salary is $49,900, we have new numbers to calculate.
- Emma: $62,900 + $17,200 = $80,100
- Ethan: $125,100 – $49,900 = $75,200
When all factors are considered, it appears that a private school may be the more affordable choice after all.
Total Cost of Graduation for You
Larry and Lauren. Selena and Sam. And now Emma and Ethan. Although these are hypothetical scenarios, it demonstrates that, when it comes to Total Cost of Graduation, public universities are not necessarily cheaper than private liberal arts schools.
Will the same be true for your real-life scenario? Maybe. Maybe not. The important thing is that you should do your calculations and not rule out private and liberal arts colleges until you assess the potential costs and also the benefits they offer over public universities.
As we have seen in these scenarios, the costs we often don’t think about are extra tuition, lost wages, added fees, and piling interest… while benefits can include things like better quality of education, more resources, and enriching opportunities that can boost your career.
These are all real factors to consider when you compare schools.
When you do the math, a private liberal arts college just may be the smarter option.