The Perks Of A Private College (Hint: It's Not The Cost)

Sep 10, 2015
Originally published on September 11, 2015 9:55 am

Imagine you had the option of going to a top state university on a full ride or a prestigious Ivy League for about $20,000 a year. Would it be a hard decision? What would you choose?

Four years ago, Becca Arbacher had to make that decision. She chose Columbia in New York City over the University of Michigan.

And she's glad she did.

"Being at Columbia has offered me some really incredible opportunities that I wouldn't have otherwise," says Arbacher. "It's kind of impossible for me to guess what my experience would have been like at Michigan."

This week, we're meeting students and families that made different decisions about college. Some chose the big state school while others went with the most popular option: community college.

Arbacher is among the minority: Around 20 percent chose a private, and more expensive, college education.

In her case, the financial burden fell to her widowed mother, Judith. But in other families, loans make an expensive school possible.

Evan Bonham selected NYU's Tisch School of the Arts to study music production. He has about $75,000 in loans, and looking back, he wishes he had talked more about the cost of college.

"Now that I'm getting ready to graduate, the debt is really starting to creep up on me," he says.

But Bonham's mother, Angela, reminded us that it's not just about value for money, but about values. The value of providing your child the best educational experience she or he can attain, even if the cost hurts.

"If you've told your children early on ... that if they do well they can go to the college that they'd like to go to," she says, "then you hold to that promise."

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And we now continue our series looking at the value of a college education. Today, the value placed on going to an elite college. Rebecca Arbacher did well enough in high school, in Montgomery County, Md. math-science magnet program to win offers of a free ride from two very good public universities. First, from the University of Maryland...

REBECCA ARBACHER: And then I was awarded the Shipman Scholars program at Michigan, and there were 15-ish of us who would be part of the same cohort going through, and so that was also a full ride.

SIEGEL: Becca didn't take either. She chose Columbia, in New York City, to major in physics. The financial aid package she got knocked Columbia's sticker price - which is now about $66,000 a year - down to around $20,000 for her widowed mother, Judith, to pay.

This week, we're meeting some students who, with their families, made different decisions about college. Nationwide, more than three fourths of high school seniors in Becca's year who went on to college chose a public school - a four-year or two-year. Becca Arbacher is among the minority, around 20 percent who chose a private and more expensive college education. Has it been worth it? Well, in Becca's case, she says yes.

ARBACHER: Being at Columbia has offered me some really incredible opportunities that I wouldn't have otherwise, between my physics labs that I've worked in, between getting to fly out with my lab to conferences, between being in New York City - all of these different things. And it's kind of impossible for me to guess what my experience would've been like at Michigan. There are definitely times where I see the group of Shipman Scholars, like, at a Michigan football game together. I'm just like, oh, well, I think our football games bring about 20 people.

SIEGEL: She is an enthusiastic booster of the centerpiece of a Columbia education - the college's core curriculum.

ARBACHER: Every freshman takes the same literature class, which, actually for me has been one of my favorite classes since getting there. Every sophomore takes the same philosophy class. And I really liked the idea that everyone had to take the same class.

SIEGEL: Becca has taken a double major in physics and also political science - that's what she figures she'll pursue after college.

ARBACHER: I've been very lucky to grow up in a family that treated my undergraduate education as a time for exploration and really figuring out what I wanted to do. I know a lot of students - some from immigrant families, some from first-generation, low-income - even at Columbia who don't really have that leeway.

SIEGEL: Which was something I heard in the other households of college seniors at costly private colleges. It's not just about value for money, but about values - the value of providing your child the best educational experience she or he can attain even if the cost hurts. That was certainly the spirit at the Bethesda, Md., home of NYU senior Evan Bonham, whose dream ever since high school has been to be a music producer.


OSHUN: (Singing) Out my window, I see mirrors.

SIEGEL: As a high school senior, Evan Bonham set his sights on New York University's Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music. This is a sample of his work with the group OSHUN.


OSHUN: (Singing) Looking at mirrors staring back at me. Brandy (ph) face is bracketing (ph), blackening on balconies chilling in the sun.

SIEGEL: Even though he knew what he wanted, Evan did apply elsewhere, and money mattered.

EVAN BONHAM: You have the large tuition bill that comes with that, so I was also looking at other schools in-state and also got a large scholarship to Morehouse, so I was going between those two options. And really for me, it was about how I wanted my life to end up and I thought NYU would be the best place. Being in New York City sort of had the best opportunities for me.

SIEGEL: But was there much talk about dream school - nightmare tuition and costs?

BONHAM: I feel like there wasn't a lot of talk about it. I kind of wish there was more talk about it, actually.

SIEGEL: Why do you say that?

BONHAM: Now I'm getting ready graduate, so the debt's really starting to creep up on me, and just in terms of my mindset and looking towards jobs and how I'm going to pay that off.

SIEGEL: Yes, 17, 18 is a - it would be a tough age to take on the notion of debt and how much do I want to owe for how many years? Seems like a very grown-up concern for high school students.

BONHAM: Right, and I feel like just a while ago, you still had to ask to go to the bathroom, you know, so it's kind of - it doesn't really make sense, you know?

SIEGEL: Especially since he received no aid from NYU, unlike the other schools that accepted him. Evan's father is a lawyer. His mother, Angela, is a speech pathologist.

ANGELA: Basically what we told our sons growing up was what my father told us, and that is you're going to go to college. So they just grew up with an understanding that they were going to go.

SIEGEL: And the promise was you can go where you can get in.

ANGELA: And if you've told your children early on, you've made them the promise that if they do well that you can - they can go to the college that they would like to go to, then you hold to that promise.

SIEGEL: These parental promises are pricey.

CAROLINE FUCHS: We call it two Mercedes a year.

SIEGEL: That's Caroline Fuchs. She and her husband, Michael, live across Montgomery County in Silver Spring, Md. Their daughter, Margie, passed up in-state tuition at the University of Maryland and a scholarship to Boston University to attend Georgetown University. She loved the social and the academic atmosphere from the start.

MARGIE FUCHS: As an English major, for example, one of our prerequisite classes is a class on literary theory, which I find fascinating, but, you know, I'd never come in contact with different - like, how do you think about literature and how do you know what you think you know? And I think, especially in Georgetown, most of the classes are - for me, at least - are smaller, which means that it's a more intimate setting where you really get to interact with material and other students and professors in ways that challenge how you're thinking and you see new points of view. And I think, like, that just is fantastic.

SIEGEL: Margie's parents, Michael and Caroline Fuchs - he's a civil servant, she works for a health care nonprofit - took out a home equity line of credit.

MICHAEL FUCHS: We also kicked in ourselves to a savings and stuff and Margie took out federal loans and stuff, so everybody has a small share of this process here.

SIEGEL: Caroline Fuchs says it was really when Margie was in high school and clearly a high achiever that they took on board how expensive college had become. But they had long told Margie that a private college education was possible.

C. FUCHS: Ten years ago, when she was 10, if we had known that college tuition had gone up as much as it had, we might have had some different considerations.

SIEGEL: Some different considerations as in you might've told her different - raised her to different expectations.

C. FUCHS: We might've set different expectations for her. Both of us went to state universities and we think they're fantastic, and we might've set that kind of expectation. Just understanding the financial impact, which, you know, what was 10 years ago, we thought we did but we were wrong.

SIEGEL: But what you're describing though is interesting because what's at work with us and our children when it comes to college education is in part what we've told them. We try to live up - to live up to the promises we've made to our kids.

C. FUCHS: Right. And it's not just the promises we made to them. I mean, we thought we could do it.

SIEGEL: Caroline Fuchs, mother of Georgetown University senior Margie Fuchs. Tomorrow, a look at how much the ground has shifted nationally and how the students we heard this week compare to their peers. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.