Image from Stocksnap.

Image from Stocksnap.

I was recently talking with a friend about the l-word: loans, specifically of the college student variety.

“If I could do it all over again,” she admitted, “I would go to a state school.”

It’s a debate that rages on year after year: if you have to keep an eye on your piggy bank, is it better to go to a private school or a state school?

I wish I could tell you to follow your dreams and worry about the price tag later, but that isn’t always feasible. Student loans are very real, and you don’t want to be stuck paying them off until you’re old enough to have great-grandchildren.

Annoyingly, the answer is that the choice between private and state school heavily depends on your situation. Is tuition your primary concern? Or is fit more important to you? Sometimes it’s cheaper to go to a private university because they do indeed have more resources (and more flexibility in using those resources) than most state schools.

This is especially true if you’re a low income, high achieving student. Programs like Questbridge aim to prevent students from “undermatching” and to make elite universities accessible to lower income students. Qualified low income students undermatch when they choose a college for which they’re extremely overqualified or choose not to attend college at all. Although Questbridge is technically a scholarship, just realizing that some colleges meet 100% of your demonstrated need without offering you loans can drastically change your college admissions mindset. It did mine.

Unfortunately, financial aid can be tough if you’re from the middle class, as fellow TP staffer Elizabeth Watson points out. In this case, sometimes it’s cheaper to go to a state university. There’s nothing wrong with state schools. Some have even become coveted brand name schools. Just like private universities, state schools have both their pros and cons. If you have drive and grit, according to this Washington Post article, it usually doesn’t matter which school you chose in the end anyway.

However, this presumption does depends on your income bracket. According to this White House report, the higher the selectivity of the chosen college, the higher the chance that a low-income student will graduate. And quite often, the problem isn’t getting in, but staying long enough to graduate.

Also, if you want a unique type of environment (such as a single gender college, an HBCU, or a religious college of a particular sect) don’t throw fit out the window. These colleges offer a certain kind of environment that you might not find later on in life.

Though tuition was a huge factor when I made my college list, I chose Barnard because attending a women’s college was important to me. I don’t regret my choice. It’s probably a little more expensive than state school would’ve been, but I can see even as a first year that the tradeoff was worth it.

That was why my friend’s admission was so surprising. She too attends a women’s college. Yet we both wanted different things. She wanted to stay close to home and get to know her current city even better. I longed to explore a new city, specifically New York City. The cost of college was a big factor in both our decisions, but it lead us both in different directions.

Likewise, when tuition is the deciding factor between state and private university, don’t forget that few people actually pay the posted price tag. Look at the financial aid offers from both universities before you make your decision. And if you want a special environment, consider putting fit before finances.

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