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Opportunity Cost: Public School vs. Private School

Eventually, you're going to be doing some math about the costs of your future education. And the results might look a little something like this:

Private school: $250,000 (tuition, room, board, textbooks)

Public school: $100,000 (tuition, room, board, textbooks)

Is private school worth it? Well, like a lot in money math, it kind of depends. Private schools cost a lot more because they don't get government funding from taxes (hence the whole private thing). They do get money from scholarships and moneybags alumni that do well and come back to with tons of cash to make up for their awkward younger years. That's all well and good, but will you get more value out of a private school education over public-school education?

Over four years, you will save (Shmoop-rough) $150,000 by attending a public school. That's a significant chunk of change, especially if you end up needing student loans to pay for that difference.

What Does Prestige Cost?

There's a lot of brouhaha about attending Harvard rather than your state school, but chances are you're going to graduate from both knowing how to spell brouhaha. Experts have lots to say about it (when don't they?), but most agree that there isn't that much difference in the quality of education between private and public schools.

Even though it's a cliché (and it pains us to use clichés), education is really what you put into it. You could attend a private school but party away your time or you could attend public school, study your butt off, and graduate with an excellent job.

Where you go to school does not guarantee your future success.

What Really Matters in Your Education

What you study can matter more than where you study, anyway. Studying engineering, business, sciences, or any type of degree that leads to a professional career will likely lead you to a higher paying job—whether you study at public or private school.

Or, if you're brilliant or determined (or both), you can turn that Creative Writing degree into an amazing career by writing the next Harry Potter or launching a tutoring startup that earns billions by the time you're ready for your IPO.

With private schools, there's a certain bragging factor. Being able to say "I studied at Yale, actually" can impress some types of people (whether they're the types of people you want to impress is another story). Being able to say "I studied at Yale, actually" with an upper-crust accent can be even better. But does it really get you a job?

Sure, being able to show that you studied at an Ivy League school can be initially impressive for job recruiters—more so if you're studying law, business, medicine, or one of the professions where Ivy League schools have a very impressive professional program.

Some employers don't care if you got straight A's and founded every club on campus…if it's not the campus they want to hire from. Others go by the motto, "if you kick butt, it doesn't matter where the butt got kicked."

Paying for it All

Here are a few strategies to make the decision less painful:

(1) Apply to both.

Apply to some pie-in-the-sky Ivy League schools if they're interesting, but also apply to some local schools where you don't mind going and where you can get an education without breaking the bank.

(2) Talk to the career or guidance counselor at your school.

Yes, even if your counselor smells of cheese and talks in 18th century prose. Ask them for advice. They've helped thousands of kids get into college so they've learned a thing or two. Don't judge the staff by their sweater vests is what we're saying.

(3) Apply for every kind of funding you can.

Hard to believe, but people are turning away free money and there are scholarships that go unclaimed each year. There are scholarships for everything—including duck calling—so even if you're too modest to call yourself brilliant, you've still got a chance.

Start as early as you can and apply for every type of funding you are even a tiny bit qualified for. You never know when some pink-haired heiress will decide that you are the perfect recipient for the huge scholarship she set up in memory of her favorite Billy Goat Mr. Snuggles. (Just be sure to send her a nice thank you note if you do get the scholarship…and include a kind line or two about Mr. Snuggles).

(4) Make smart decisions when you go to college.

Whether you end up at Dartmouth or Kansas State, take advantage of the extra-curricular activities, the classes, and the library. Make the most of your experience (whatever it is) and learn all you can. And have some fun, too. It's a tall order, but Shmoop makes it a little easier with a college planning guide and even tips on paying for your college without selling a kidney.

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