What is a Private College?

We break down the basics of this higher education option, address the cost of private college and highlight private school benefits.

It’s likely college-bound teens have heard of Michigan State University, University of Michigan or one of the other 10 big-name public universities in our state.

But there are many other higher education options beyond these public colleges to put on that list of considerations. In Michigan alone, there are more private colleges than public ones, opening up more possibilities. Take a look at what a private college is, what makes it different than a public university and when this schooling option might be a good fit.

What is a private college?

A private college is a privately funded higher education institution. The major difference between a public and private college is that they’re funded differently. Public institutions get per pupil funding from the state, much like public K-12 schools, says Lisa Kujawa, associate provost for enrollment management at Lawrence Technological University in Southfield.

The price tag on tuition at a private college may look really steep compared to the public schools (sometimes $20,000-$50,000 per year vs. $10,000-$14,000 per year) partly because of that government funding. But as far as the cost of private college goes, private institutions work to make it affordable for students.

A common misconception about private colleges is “students wouldn’t be able to bring in assistance from the government in loans or scholarships or grants, which obviously isn’t true,” says Malachi Crane, vice president for enrollment and marketing at Spring Arbor University.

Students who attend private colleges can still apply for student aid in the form of loans, grants and scholarships through FAFSA – just like public college students. There are state and federal grants available and a variety of scholarships.

Private schools also may have endowments and institutional aid available to students. And, there are other expenses that may or may not be a factor depending on the school. For example, at LTU, they provide undergraduate students with a laptop (there’s a refunded deposit) that comes complete with software needed in the fields they’re studying, like engineering.

Kujawa also points out that at least at LTU, students don’t get hit with a lot of fees.

Other college payment options include the state’s 529 plans, like MESP (Michigan Education Savings Plan) and MET (Michigan Education Trust). You can learn more about both here.

When parents look at these schools, they tend to think they’re pricy – “when they’re talking about just straight sticker price, often it is,” Crane notes. “But you have to go deeper than that.” Do your research to find out what aid is available before judging strictly on the tuition price.

“Go deeper than what the pure facts are that they can see by doing the level of online research that the average family does,” he adds. “Because you tend to not draw the complete and correct conclusion on something as simple as what is it really going to cost.”

Private school benefits

What is a private school like, exactly, and what can it do for your student?

“The atmosphere of the public versus private, at least from our experience, can be dramatically different,” Crane says.

Private colleges often have class sizes and student-to-teacher ratios because the total student population tends to be smaller. That said, the sizes can vary.

“A public (university) can be medium size to large, and a private can be really small, – 1,000 (students) – to medium-size small – 5,000 (students),” Kujawa says – or even a bit larger.

However, the smaller class sizes can be a benefit for students. Crane adds that at Spring Arbor, the professors and faculty get to know students “beyond simply knowing their name.”

By and large, Crane says it’s likely students will have a “small, more intimate experience on a campus like Spring Arbor as oppose to some of your Michigan public institutions.”

Another potential draw for families is that some private schools are religious focused. Spring Arbor, for example, is Christian. LTU, on the other hand, is not religious. You’ll find a mix throughout Michigan.

Private colleges also tend to have higher graduation rates, Kujawa adds, and for students who are looking to study a specific program or get involved with a particular niche, a private school may be a good fit.

“I always tell parents when they’re looking, when they’re in that pre-college planning process, that every college has a personality,” says Kujawa – “and it has to be the right fit. And you only know that if you visit.”

Takeaways for parents, students

If your top choices include any private colleges, Kujawa definitely encourages students to visit to see if it has a feel that’s right for you. Like with anything, a private school could be a great match for your student or it could not be the right choice. If that school has a program that is a great opportunity for your child, it doesn’t matter if it’s public or private.

“Just educate yourself overall, and if you don’t, then you are going to make a bad choice,” Kujawa says.

Consider all of your options. Make a list of schools to consider and plan to visit your top choices – and when you do, prepare a list of questions and ask them all the same ones, she suggests.

And start looking early. “Families and students can always start earlier than what they do,” Crane says, noting some will wait until senior year of high school. “It’s never too early to start that process and walking through and being able to allow yourself adequate time to visit the campuses.”

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