Private universities in America are not wholly private. They subsist on generous tax breaks, but they do exercise substantial autonomy in making decisions for their students and raising money for their operations. These broad freedoms are behind the many advantages private universities enjoy over their public counterparts.
The economics of the situation actually favor private higher education. Traditionally, many think public universities save students money and offer a better value to boot, but the lower tuition costs of public universities are deceptive (see this excellent report for comprehensive statistics). For one thing, many students at private colleges do not pay their education’s full sticker price. The net cost of a private education has not really increased in the past decade, and financial aid for a private education has increased at a faster rate than tuition costs.
Things are even more tilted in favor of private schools when you consider the efficiency of that money. College education is increasing in cost across the board, though at different rates for the private and public sector. The issue is that as tuition rises for public universities, per-student spending does not. Most of the money gained from tuition increases goes to administrators and faculty, not to student resources. Generous endowments and spending at private schools allow for more access to learning tools that students need, rather than funding maintenance and pencil-pushing.
The root cause of this problem is that public institutions are dependent on politics, thereby subject to states’ budget woes. If recent history is any clue, education is a spending area that is easily threatened when times are tough, and state spending on public school systems has largely been in decline since the early 2000s. Even if states reinvigorate their public school systems (and so make it cheaper per student), the public at large would still be paying the cost for an inefficient use of education dollars.
Besides, there are other, less monetary benefits to attending a private university or college; one of them being the environment administrators are free to craft. Public universities are government entities, forced respect the rigid free speech line drawn by the First Amendment. This means that they must tolerate some very unsavory types of speech. Private universities, however, are much freer to craft speech codes that punish or limit hate speech. Private universities don't always succeed in using that power in the best way (think of the way Yale has mishandled the DKE fraternities chants), but they have succeeded in protecting the learning environment.
Finally, private universities are a better setting for political activism. Because public universities are affiliated with the government, they do not, to take one example, have the same freedom to prevent recruiters from coming on campus as a way of protesting "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" (back when it was in force). Moreover, university administrators, because of this affiliation, may be more hamstrung in what they say and do. Attending a private university gives one access to an environment that will bend to democratic types of influence: protest, request, and argumentation.
Private universities are indeed expensive, but they are a freer, more efficient and effective way to get an education when compared with public schools.
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