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Opinion: Private Universities May Cost Less Than You Think


But families must have comprehensive and accurate information before they make the life-shaping decision to choose a college. Families may be surprised to learn that private colleges and universities can be as affordable as public ones.

By Donald V. DeRosa

Economic turmoil on Wall Street and Main Street has all of us concerned about our financial future. As the stock market drops and rises on an hour-by-hour basis, and we hear news about bailouts, a recession and rising unemployment, we question the wisdom of any long-term financial commitments.

Among those long-term commitments is the cost of higher education. Families with children in college or nearing college age are casting nervous glances at the price tag attached to a diploma.

Given the financial unease so many families feel, this reaction is understandable. Recent reports in the media have even quoted prospective students and their parents as saying they are considering only "cheaper" public colleges and universities rather than private institutions.

But families must have comprehensive and accurate information before they make the life-shaping decision to choose a college. Families may be surprised to learn that private colleges and universities can be as affordable as public ones.

Most private institutions use their endowments, in-house scholarships, and other programs to reduce many students' overall costs by more than half. Research by the College Board confirms that the majority of students at private colleges receive scholarships and financial assistance. The National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities puts the figure at 86 percent, which is close to the percentage of students who receive financial assistance here at University of the Pacific. When financial aid is factored in, many students at public and private colleges actually pay similar amounts for their education.

Private institutions are doing more than ever to make college more accessible. Stanford and a growing list of other private universities now waive or discount tuition for families below a certain income. Caltech has substituted scholarships for loans to many middle-class families.

But cost comparisons don't tell the whole story. A college or university should be selected on more than just a dollar figure. The institution's reputation, classroom size, quality of facilities, availability of professors, richness of academic programs and the array of financial aid available are all important factors.

Private schools typically offer a different experience: small classes, one-on-one contact with professors, an emphasis on high quality teaching, whole student development, and enriched out-of-classroom experiences. Students leave well equipped with life skills that will help them succeed as professionals and as people.

Private schools often have innovative or uncommon programs not found at public institutions. St. Mary's College of California offers a cross-disciplinary liberal arts curriculum that introduces students to the "great books" of the Western tradition. The University of Southern California encourages students to develop "breadth with depth," integrating liberal arts and professional studies, and combining a major with a minor in widely separated fields. University of the Pacific students can take advantage of accelerated programs in pharmacy, dentistry, and law, finishing in fewer years than at public institutions.

At Pacific, we were the first to offer a four-year graduation guarantee, a program that has since been adopted by other private institutions. As the average time to attain a degree at a public university is now five to six years, this guarantee is financially significant.

Every university-public or private, large or small-offers distinct programs and experiences and can be the right fit for a particular student. But, especially in these unsettling economic times, such an important choice for students and their families must be made in an informed manner. Education is not a short-term financial decision. It is an investment in a person's entire life; perhaps the best investment one can ever make, and with the highest possible return.

- Donald V. DeRosa has been President of University of the Pacific since 1995.

This editorial originally was published in the Rhode Island Providence Journal on Nov. 5, 2008, The Contra Costa Times on Nov. 13, 2008, and The Record on Nov. 23, 2008.