The Appeal of Large Public Universities – Part One

Published by Wendy Nelson on

Football GameBack when I was looking at colleges, I never would have considered any large public universities.  I grew up in Wisconsin, where the Wisconsin Badgers are king, had been around the campus of UW-Madison several times, and my mother spoke very highly of her alma mater.  But I didn’t even consider it.  I didn’t want to be a face in the crowd.  I was convinced that small to medium-sized private colleges were the only ones for me.

When I started the college search with my oldest daughter and saw how well regarded both UW-Madison and our home-state flagship University of Illinois – Urbana Champaign (UIUC) were, I started reconsidering large public universities.  However, there was no selling my oldest daughter on even visiting UIUC – not from me,  her teachers, or her friends.  Like me, she was looking for a small to medium-sized private college.

The first thing I find potentially appealing about large public universities is the cost.  In many cases, the only appealing cost option will be your in-state options.  Unless, of course, your state has good reciprocity agreements with other states.  This is demonstrated in my example below.

My middle daughter has been a Badger fan ever since she was little.  She has often talked about going to UW-Madison.  When I dug into the cost difference between UW-Madison and UIUC, I said, “No way.  You are going to have to learn to like the Illini.”  Illinois does not have a true reciprocity program with another state for students to go out of state at reduced tuition.  There are some agreements with smaller Wisconsin campuses for reduced out-of-state tuition, but nothing like Minnesota and Wisconsin’s reciprocity agreement.  Minnesota students can attend UW-Madison at 25% above the in-state tuition cost.  Illinois students (and other non-residents) pay 2.5 times the in-state tuition rate!

UW-Madison Base Yearly Tuition Plus Room & Board:

  • WI Resident – $19,010
  • MN Resident – $21,796
  • Other State Residents – $35,260

U of I Urbana Champaign Base Yearly Tuition Plus Room & Board:

  • Illinois Resident – $26,450
  • Other State Residents – $41,076

So this tells me that for my daughter to be a Badger, I’d have to be prepared to fork out an additional $9,000 per year, $36,000 total assuming she graduates in four years.  Would it be worth it?  I’d have to say, No Way.  The schools are neck and neck in most college rankings, including US News and Forbes.  Money Magazine ranks UIUC a slightly better value for your money.

Do I think it is unfair that as a resident of Illinois, I pay $7,400 more per year for my child to attend my state flagship school than if I was a Wisconsin state resident paying for the Wisconsin state flagship university?  Of course I do, but I am told I pay less in state tax and property tax so I guess it all evens out.

Here’s where the value proposition really comes in.  The sticker price of UIUC is less than or equal to the net price I would pay at many private colleges IF my child gets a major merit scholarship.  And Illinois is a high-priced school.  Many states have much lower in-state costs that make the large public option more appealing than private college options.

As a parent, can I count on my child receiving a large merit scholarship at a private college?  Well, no, not really.  I can work with my child to narrow down the college list to schools that offer merit scholarships that would put us in the right net price range, but unless the school offers guaranteed merit amounts based on GPA and ACT scores, it’s out of my hands.  It depends on how well she sells herself and what her competition looks like.

To me, the best thing about the cost of the in-state public university is, it’s a sure thing.  I don’t need to hope for merit scholarships, although if they offer some, that’s great.  I basically know the maximum I am going to pay up front.  Also, in the case of Illinois, and many other states, the tuition amount is guaranteed not to increase for four years of continuous enrollment.  Compare this to my oldest daughter’s private college where rates go up approximately 5% per year with no corresponding increase in merit aid!

So cost can be a major appeal of large public universities.  Next week, in part two, I will focus on why the size of large public universities can be appealing.