May 19, 2014

Public and private college grads rank about equally in life satisfaction

Private and public college grads say they are about equally satisfied in lifeAt a time when college tuition is rising rapidly—particularly at the nation’s private colleges and universities—students and their parents face the question of whether a more expensive education leads to greater returns later in life. The answer given by those who have graduated from college is that their feelings of personal satisfaction and economic well-being are about the same, no matter which type of institution they attended, according to a 2013 Pew Research Center survey.

Majorities of each group were satisfied with their family life, financial situation and current job. There were no statistically significant differences between the two groups on any of those three measures on overall satisfaction, though private school graduates were somewhat more likely than public school graduates to say they were “very satisfied” with their personal financial situation (44% vs. 34%).

A survey conducted by Gallup and Purdue University earlier this year, coming at the question a somewhat different way, found that the type of institution the student attended—public or private, selective or less selective—mattered less to their workplace engagement and well-being later in life than the experiences they had while they were in school, such as having an encouraging mentor or participating in an internship or work experience related to classroom learning.

College grads feel positively about return on their investment whether they went to a public or private collegeIn the Pew Research survey, both private and public college graduates were likely to say that their education was worth what they and their family paid for it. Roughly equal shares of 83% among private school graduates and 86% among public school graduates said they had already seen a payoff. Small shares of each (5% of private graduates and 7% of public graduates) said they expect to see their educations pay off in the future. The remainder said it will not pay off, or they are not sure.

Graduates from private colleges were somewhat more likely to say their education was useful in preparing them for a job or career than graduates from public colleges (61% of private college graduates said it was very useful, compared with 51% of public graduates). Yet they said it took them about equal lengths of time to find the type of job they wanted after graduating. Slightly less than half of both groups (42% of private school graduates and 46% of public school graduates) said they found a job while still in school or almost immediately after graduation.

Private college grads exceed public college grads in borrowingThe Pew Research survey found that graduates from private colleges were more likely to say they took out loans to finance their education than public college graduates (56% vs. 47%). A recent analysis of Department of Education data from the New America Foundation finds the same pattern among recent college graduates. Among adults who completed a bachelor’s degree at a private, non-profit school in the 2011-2012 school year, 74% took out loans to pay for college. The share who borrowed was even higher among graduates of private, for-profit colleges (87%). By comparison, only 64% of public college graduates took out student loans.

Bachelor’s degree recipients from private schools graduated with higher average debt than those with four-year degrees from public schools. A typical private non-profit college graduate in 2011-2012 who borrowed to complete their education graduated with $32,308 in loans (those graduating from private for-profit colleges owed even more, at about $40,038), compared with $25,640 among public university graduates the same year.

Topics: Economics and Personal Finances, College, Student Loans, Life Satisfaction

  1. Photo of Anna Brown

    is a research analyst focusing on social and demographic trends at Pew Research Center.


  1. Julia2 years ago

    I was wondering if it were possible to know of the 790 people who graduated with a bachelor’s degree, how many graduated from public colleges and how many graduated from private colleges? Thank you!

    1. Anna Brown2 years ago

      Hi Julia, thank you for your question!

      Of the 790 respondents with at least a bachelor’s degree, 252 graduated from a private college/university and 512 graduated from a public college/university. Another 3 answered Don’t know or Refused, and 23 of these respondents were not asked the question because they were enrolled in college at the time of the survey. Looking at the weighted survey results, 34% graduated from private and 66% graduated from public.

      Anna Brown

  2. Mike T3 years ago

    My daughter who has ACT of 30 applied to 10 elite private colleges for the fall of 2014 in hope of receiving financial aid as a low income Asian American student. Brandeis, Bucknell, Hamilton, Oberlin and Wesleyan denied. Bard, Colby. Franklin & Marshall, Grinnell and Trinity College(CT) placed her on waitlists that she declined to be on due to lack of financial aid for waitlisted applicants. However, University of California, Santa Barbara(UCSB) accepted her and charged only $4,500 per year net tuition plus room and board cost. I believe that the enrollment management system software did not consider my daughter as favorably as a candidate for admission to elite private institutions who would have to come up with a large amount of financial aid to compete with UC system schools. I am glad that she has UC as a back up and also receive quality college education, although, she preferred an elite private liberal arts education. It is clear that financial resources is a very important factor in deciding who receives an elite education in private institution and who obtains a practical training in public university.

  3. Rosa Adams3 years ago

    Thank you very much! I have to rite a speech for debate and this was very VERY helpful. So thanks again

  4. Mats Gorner3 years ago

    The finances are different and what I feel is missing in this whole research is, what level of life they live, what level of life they expect, cause that’s what their satisfaction is measured from. The point of masseur isn’t consistent.

  5. Dahn Shaulis3 years ago

    It’s too bad that Pew didn’t break out the private numbers to see what the life satisfaction was of for-profit grads. It’s also very possible that there is a “survivor effect” here: what about all the people who do not graduate? What’s their life satisfaction like?

    1. Anna Brown3 years ago

      Hi Dahn, good question! Though the sample size of private college graduates in our survey was too small to compare for-profit and non-profit graduates, we did look at those who said they completed “some college” but did not obtain a two- or four-year degree.

      Non-college-completers are generally less satisfied in life than those with a bachelor’s degree. For example, 67% of those with some college experience said they are satisfied with their financial situation, compared with 76% of bachelor’s degree holders. And 43% of those who attended but did not graduate from college said their education was very useful in preparing them for a job or career, whereas 54% of those with a bachelor’s degree said the same.

      Thanks for your question,
      Anna Brown