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Private Perception vs. Public Reality: Evening the Playing Field

Do you want to save some money on your child's college education? Go to a private college.

Yes, yes, I know that's against conventional wisdom, sort of like becoming an investment banker or buying a Pontiac dealership. But one of the few good things about an economic crisis is that it shakes up businesses, forcing them out of a comfortable existence. Higher education is no different. As the downturn makes deans, registrars and presidents scramble to find a recipe for affordability, one thing has become clear.

If the gap between a public and private education is shrinking, what are you getting for your money?

The gap between tuition for private and public colleges and universities, once a significant chasm, is closing and closing at a faster rate than most people are aware of.

Private colleges certainly can have some eyebrow-raising tuition price tags, but while the perception among the public is that everyone pays that bill in full, the reality is that almost no one pays full price at a private college or university. The average tuition bill at a private college, according to Money magazine, is around $25,000. At Juniata (our tuition is $29,610), the average tuition bill per year for our students after receiving our financial aid awards of scholarships, grants and other aid, averages around $16,500.

Public universities average resident tuition of $6,600 and about $17,500 for nonresidents. But there are dark clouds forming over public campuses. States are withdrawing funding (Washington faces a 26 percent cut) and cash-strapped publics across the country are facing double-digit tuition hikes. Tuition at many premium state universities is well into five figures, including $12,000 at the University of Illinois, Champaign Urbana and $13,014 at Penn State (University Park).

Add into the equation that many of the state universities are getting financial broadsides from all angles thanks to money-strapped governors reducing higher education grants, reduced budgets tied to the economic downturn and drastic cutbacks caused by imploding endowments that have yet to recover from the perfect storm of the banking, manufacturing and stock crises.

It's enough to make you wonder if it's all worth it.

Well, certainly a college education is worth the time it takes to get one. The question is how much money and time should it take to attain your dreams. If the gap between a public and private education is shrinking, what are you getting for your money?

Association with a Name Brand: At State U you'll have the opportunity to watch sporting events with 100,000 of your closest friends and buy thousands of dollars in sports memorabilia that everyone else in your state already owns. At a private college you will actually have athletes in class and graduate with them at the end of four years.

Association with Name Faculty: Yes, at State U there are famous professors, and if they teach undergraduates you'll be able to attend a lecture with 1,000 of your closest friends. At a private college, you'll be taught by a professor with 15 to 25 classmates you actually know.

Association with All Your High School Pals: The truism that state universities are easier to get into isn't true anymore. Many of the premier state universities are just as selective as private colleges and the list of selective publics is growing. At a private college, perhaps the Old Gang won't be accepted, but the smaller classes and friendlier atmosphere will make it easier to find new friends (and graduate on time).

If you take into account that the more focused, more intimate and more memorable private college education is, well, more likely to end in graduation in four years or less, that supposedly less expensive trip to State U is looking like a detour you shouldn't have taken.

A couple of Harvard economists cited by Money magazine found that college graduates earn more than double (60 percent) the career incomes of workers who did not go beyond high school. Actually you don't have to be an economist to see that graduating on time and on-task with career goals instilled by professors who not only know your name but also know your potential is the smart choice, particularly if the price tag for each option is getting less distinct.

Thomas R. Kepple is president of Juniata College in Huntingdon, Pa. (www.juniata.edu).