Fourth in an occasional series

Bowdoin College junior Emily McCadden almost didn’t apply to the small, private college in Brunswick out of fear that it would be too expensive and too difficult to get in.

“It definitely is intimidating to see that a school costs $60,000 (a year),” said McCadden, who grew up in Calais, a small city on the Canadian border in eastern Washington County.

Emily McCadden, a junior at Bowdoin College, swallowed her fear of the private school’s $60,000 price tag in her quest for educational advantages.

Emily McCadden, a junior at Bowdoin College, swallowed her fear of the private school’s $60,000 price tag in her quest for educational advantages. Courtesy photo

The daughter of a state trooper and an elementary school secretary, McCadden was the first person in her family even to apply to college. She wanted to get the most out of the experience, and she believed Bowdoin was the place to do that. She set aside her fears and submitted an application.

Weeks later, the good news arrived: Not only had McCadden been accepted, but the school also would provide enough financial aid to cover more than half the cost.

“That really lifted a huge burden,” she said. “They made it possible for me to go.”

Private colleges, despite their higher average tuition price, can be more affordable than public universities for students from lower-income families because of their generous financial aid policies. In Maine, the average student debt for private college graduates is far lower than for graduates of public universities. Among schools that report graduates’ average student debt, the lowest for 2013 graduates was $18,929 at Bates, while the highest was $33,875 at the University of Maine.

But that doesn’t mean private colleges are better for everyone. They are far less likely to accept students who are heavily dependent on financial aid unless those students also have excellent high school grades, standardized test scores and community contributions.

For all but the highest achievers, determining whether public or private school is the better value requires asking additional questions, because each type of institution offers distinct advantages.

While the average debt upon graduation is lower at private schools, that is largely due to the type of students who get in. Those at the low end of the economic scale get major financial breaks, and those at the high end – which generally constitute 60 percent or more of the student body – don’t need to take on debt because their parents can afford to cover the full cost. Still, the key characteristic most private college students share is high academic achievement, not wealth.

“Don’t obsess over the 529 (college savings plan) – obsess over good grades,” said Bob Stuart, president of Yarmouth-based Educational Consultants Inc. and director of Maine College Circle, a nonprofit initiative to bring higher education opportunities to more students in rural Maine. “You don’t have to be a genius to get grades. You just have to make the effort.”

Top-tier students from middle-income families such as McCadden, who graduated first in her class, are likely to be accepted at exclusive, private colleges but may have to pay the same or more than at a public university, even with financial aid.

Average students from low- and middle-income families probably won’t get accepted to a small, private institution, but they will be able to attend a public university at a low cost.

It’s important for college-bound students and their parents to consider the cost of a college education, but it is not the most important thing, Stuart said. They also should consider factors specific to each college or university such as location, reputation, majors offered, class sizes, diversity, lifestyle, sports and other activities.

The goal is to find the best overall value, he said, and that depends largely on what an individual student is hoping to get from his or her college education. At the most basic level, it’s about finding a match between a student’s goals and the school best suited to meet them, he said.

“I would hope they wouldn’t care less whether it’s public or private,” Stuart said.

DIFFERENCES IN THE DATA

In general, private colleges are smaller, more difficult to get into and have higher tuition rates. However, they also can be far more generous with need-based financial aid, and experts say students from lower-income families should not automatically dismiss “expensive” private schools as being out of reach.

Public universities usually are larger and offer a wider variety of majors – helpful for students who aren’t sure right from the start what they want to study. They also admit a higher percentage of applicants and tend to offer significant discounts to in-state residents. The vast majority of undergraduate students attending Maine’s public universities grew up in Maine.

College-bound students should set aside any preconceived notions about which type of school is better or more affordable, Stuart said.

Some students feel more comfortable with a smaller school where there will be more individual attention and student accountability. Some will want a larger school where there is a greater variety of programs and activities, he said.

Some students are naturally self-motivated and do well at a large, public university with hundreds of students and little one-on-one interaction with instructors, Stuart said. For those who need more personal attention, a small, private school may be better.

“The faculty members are actually going to care why you didn’t come to class,” he said.

Nearly all colleges and universities participate in an annual survey conducted by educators and publishers including U.S. News & World Report under what is known as the Common Data Set Initiative.

The initiative produces annual reports on each school that include information about admissions, financial aid, student demographics, academic offerings, faculty, class sizes and more. A standardized format makes it easy to compare schools in such areas.

Common Data Set reports typically appear on college and university websites and can be found easily online.

An analysis of the most recent Common Data Set reports for UMaine, the University of Southern Maine, Bates College, Bowdoin College and Colby College found strong similarities among the three private schools in a number of areas, just as the two public universities share many common traits.

In general, the reports show that Maine’s private colleges admit a relatively small percentage of applicants; Bowdoin admits the lowest at 15 percent. Both UMaine and USM admit the vast majority of applicants – 83 percent and 84 percent, respectively.

At the state’s private colleges, only a small fraction of the student body is from Maine. At Bates, just 10 percent of undergraduates are Mainers. At UMaine, 74 percent of the 9,339 undergraduates are from Maine. At USM, 71 percent of its 6,628 undergraduates are Mainers.

The student-to-faculty ratio is also vastly different. There are 10 or fewer students per faculty member at Bates, Bowdoin and Colby, while the ratio is 16 to 1 at UMaine and 15 to 1 at USM.

Public universities offer a wider variety of degree programs: UMaine offers 90, while Bowdoin offers 33, for instance.

WHAT TO INVEST IN

But as useful as the hard numbers may be, students need to consider what they’re getting for their money, and what kind of college experience they want to invest in, Stuart said.

“I’m not sure that I’d put it all on a spreadsheet and convert it all into dollars and cents,” he said.

Isabel Wolfe, a Falmouth High School senior and Maine State Ballet company member, recently received an acceptance letter from her first-choice school, Yale University.

Isabel Wolfe practices in a studio at the Maine State Ballet in Falmouth. The Falmouth High School senior has been accepted at Yale, which she chose for its excellent science programs and the opportunity to continue her dance studies, too. Prestige and exclusivity were factors in her decision, too, she says, but not the most important ones.

Isabel Wolfe practices in a studio at the Maine State Ballet in Falmouth. The Falmouth High School senior has been accepted at Yale, which she chose for its excellent science programs and the opportunity to continue her dance studies, too. Prestige and exclusivity were factors in her decision, too, she says, but not the most important ones. Whitney Hayward/Staff Photographer

Wolfe, who is 17, chose Yale because of its excellent science programs and the fact that she could continue to pursue ballet on the side. Although she is an accomplished dancer, Wolfe said her goal is to pursue a career in cognitive science or cellular or molecular biology.

Wolfe, who is expected to pay about $37,000 a year out of pocket, not including merit-based scholarships, said the prestige and exclusivity of Yale was a factor in her decision, but not the most important one.

“I ended up looking at those prestigious schools because they had the things I was looking for,” she said. “The biggest thing I wanted was really good academics.”

Joshuah Salkind knew he wanted something bigger than tiny Easton Junior-Senior High School in Aroostook County, where he graduated in 2014.

University of Maine freshman Joshuah Salkind listens as Dr. James Breece lectures on macroeconomics Thursday. Salkind, who graduated from a very small Maine high school, chose UMaine for the large-university experience.

University of Maine freshman Joshuah Salkind listens as Dr. James Breece lectures on macroeconomics Thursday. Salkind, who graduated from a very small Maine high school, chose UMaine for the large-university experience. Kevin Bennett/Special to the Maine Sunday Telegram

As senior class president and valedictorian in a class of 13 students, Salkind could have chosen any number of colleges, public or private, but decided to attend the University of Maine in Orono in part because he liked its size. UMaine has an undergraduate population of more than 9,300, and some of Salkind’s lectures are larger than the entire student body of his high school.

“I didn’t want a school that was tiny,” he said. “I wanted one that was large, with a lot of different perspectives.”

Salkind said he did consider the cost of tuition when he considered where to go, but in the end it wasn’t the most important factor. He is paying for his education primarily with financial aid, including an $8,000 merit scholarship.

While Salkind did not specifically choose UMaine because it was closer to home, he said the proximity is handy.

“I like a larger environment just in terms of the opportunities,” he said. “It worked out conveniently, because I’m only 2½ hours from home.”

The degree to which a student feels he fits in is an important consideration, according to Stuart. Even with a lot of financial aid, students from lower-income families at expensive private schools will be competing with a student population in which the majority of their classmates come from wealthier backgrounds. They may not be able to afford to participate in some activities their peers engage in, Stuart said.

“It’s not easy,” he said.

PRICES CAN BE DECEIVING

The irony is that for lower-income students, an exclusive private school is likely the more affordable choice if they have the academic chops, said Lori Kletzer, provost and dean at Colby in Waterville.

That has become increasingly true as states have continued to cut subsidies to their public universities, Kletzer said. In response, most public schools have raised tuition and most simply cannot afford to cover the full cost of attendance, even for the most academically gifted students.

Private schools, by contrast, have many more students who are wealthy and large, private endowments that help cover the costs for those with financial needs.

At Colby, at least 60 percent of students come from financial backgrounds that allow them to pay the full $61,100 yearly cost of attendance, Kletzer said.

For the rest, Colby covers 100 percent of their financial need as determined by the school, she said.

“Public universities can’t afford to do that,” Kletzer said.

Kletzer said public institutions’ mission of making higher education accessible to more members of the public makes it far more difficult to cover each student’s full financial need. The result means students at those institutions are likely to graduate with more student debt.

The single best thing students can do to gain entry into a private school capable of covering their entire education is to achieve excellent grades in high school, Kletzer said.

“You need to focus on your high school academics from the time you’re a freshman,” she said.

PUBLIC PROS

That doesn’t mean private colleges have all the advantages.

The vast majority of college students will still be able to pay less for their higher education at a public university, said Christopher Quint, spokesman for USM in Portland.

“Public institutions are just that – they’re public,” Quint said. “They’re meant to be available to the masses.”

Even with reductions in state funding, public universities provide significant tuition discounts for in-state residents, he said. Private colleges offer no such discounts.

At USM, for example, the current cost of tuition and fees is $8,920 for Mainers, compared with $21,280 for out-of-state students. Students from other New England states can get a partial discount if their state’s public universities don’t offer the degree they are seeking at USM, making their annual cost for tuition and fees $12,730.

Students who prefer to live in metropolitan areas also are drawn to public universities, which tend to be in larger cities, Quint said. One of USM’s biggest draws is its location.

“Portland is a dynamic, growing city,” he said.

Variety is another advantage of public universities, Quint said. USM has 86 degree programs ranging from music to mechanical engineering, far more variety than at any of Maine’s private, liberal arts colleges.

Students who don’t yet know what type of career they want may be better off at a public university where they have access to a greater number of options, Stuart said.

OTHER FACTORS

Deciding whether to attend a public or private university often encompasses life and career after graduation. One aspect of the college experience is developing contacts who ultimately will help a student advance in his or her career, Stuart said, adding that it is a crucial aspect that students should bear in mind when choosing where to go.

For instance, a student might want to attend a school in the city or state where she ultimately wants to pursue a career, because teachers, administrators and fellow alumni are more likely to prove useful as contacts.

Another indirect benefit is how the college experience can develop a student’s confidence, Stuart said, and in that regard, private schools may offer the greater benefit.

The primary reason so many business and political leaders come from Ivy League schools isn’t that they are inherently smarter or better qualified for the job, he said.

“It does give you, for better or worse, a sort of internal confidence that, ‘I should be able to do this, if anyone can,’ ” he said.

McCadden, who is studying biology at Bowdoin, said the advantages she will gain in life from her college education more than justify the cost.

“My own family members have had limited opportunities because they didn’t have the ability to pursue a higher education,” she said. “I think it’s a great investment.”