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The news cycle increasingly features discussions about the value of a college degree. What is the financial advantage of the undergraduate degree over a lifetime? Are there alternative credentials that provide comparable outcomes? A series of questions regarding private colleges appears frequently in this public narrative. Is the value of a private education worth the cost? Will a student graduate with more debt than if they attended a public college? Do students receive as much financial aid at a private college compared to that at a public university? Can a private school provide the innovation and flexibility students are seeking?

In this column, I aim to take on some of the false narrative that gets repeated about private education by providing facts. These private college myths can deter some students and their families from choosing a private education even when this path may be the best decision for their future success.

Myth No. 1: Private universities do not give out as much financial aid.

A higher percentage of students enrolled at private universities qualify for financial aid than those at public institutions. In fact, nearly four out of every five students at a private college receive a combination of scholarships and grants from their chosen institution, according to a 2016 study by the U.S. Department of Education.

According to the Council of Independent Colleges and the U.S. Department of Education, students at private universities actually received three times as much financial aid than their public-university counterparts, and they receive four times as much as students at for-profit schools.

In addition, students who attend private colleges and universities are far more likely to graduate and less likely to default on their loans. For example, Valparaiso University’s low federal loan default rate of 3.1%, compared to a national average of 10.1%, reflects that a Valpo education enables our graduates to repay their loans as they pursue their passions.

Myth No. 2: Only wealthy families can afford to send their children to private universities because of the high tuition rates.

Typically, the actual amount students pay at a private university is less than 60% of the full cost of tuition at the institution. Across the board, private institutions enroll students of all financial backgrounds into various schools and programs.

Around 29% of undergraduates at private, nondoctoral institutions come from backgrounds where the families’ income was less than $40,000. Private colleges often have the flexibility to offer additional aid for students with special circumstances, allowing students an opportunity to attend where public colleges may be unable. At Valpo, 98% of all students receive financial aid.

Many private colleges are also supported by endowments, which allow schools to offer grants and scholarships to further reduce the “sticker price,” to levels sometimes equal to or lower than the price of attending a public college. At Valparaiso University, we are in the midst of the endowment-focused Forever Valpo: The Campaign for Our Future, which aims to raise an additional $250 million for student scholarships, programs and faculty development. More than $220 million has already been committed to the Forever Valpo campaign.

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Myth No. 3: Private colleges aren’t innovative or flexible.

For the most part, private universities have smaller class sizes and lower student-to-faculty ratios than their peer public institutions. Classes are taught by faculty, not graduate students and those faculty are focused primarily on student success, rather than individual research activities and scholarly publication. Faculty members know the students in their classes and work with them to create the most fulfilling college experience possible.

At private universities, undergraduate research opportunities are often available, offering opportunities for students and faculty to work together to develop innovative solutions for problems facing the world. Students at private universities are able to take advantage of these opportunities beginning as early as their freshman year, whereas student research opportunities at larger, public universities can be reserved for graduate students. Smaller enrollment at private institutions allows for increased hands-on opportunities for each student.

Thanks to small class sizes and dedicated staff and faculty, some students have the flexibility to customize their own course of study. By working closely with their individual advisers and selecting a variety of courses, students can construct a well-rounded degree that complements their career aspirations and helps them to reach their full potential.

Myth No. 4: Private college liberal arts programs are not a pathway to a job.

The value of a liberal arts education has long been debated in our nation. This approach to education encourages students to cultivate transferable skills in addition to their academic program of study. These “soft skills” are highly sought after by employers, who appreciate the adaptability of liberal arts graduates from job to job and across sectors. One study from the Association of American Colleges and Universities reports oral communication, teamwork skills, ethical judgement and decision making and applied knowledge in real-world settings as some of the top priorities of executives and hiring managers when considering recent graduates. The liberal arts tradition is known for fostering these skills through both academic courses and co-curricular programming.

Another concern of parents when considering private liberal arts colleges is long-term career success. Do students truly gain an advantage by studying in the liberal arts tradition? A recent study from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation reports attending a liberal arts college for most students leads to meaningful economic mobility. Thanks to the dialogue between students and professors, close reading and examination of a broad range of subjects and texts, graduates from private liberal arts colleges are prepared for a lifetime of success in an increasingly volatile employment environment.

Busting the myths

The facts offer a counter narrative when it comes to private higher education. Private colleges are not the expensive, inflexible institutions depicted far too often in media and public discourse. When preparing a college search game plan, parents and students should consider a variety of schools, large and small, public and private, to discover the best fit for each student. Higher education is one of life’s most important investments and can pay great dividends not only economically, but also in the quality and character of one’s lifetime. For many, a private college might well be the way to go.

Mark Heckler is president of Valparaiso University. The opinions are the writer's.

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