Why Private Nonprofit Colleges Cost Less Than You Think

A larger price tag isn't always more expensive when it comes to college. Read on to see how you can save money by attending a private not-for-profit school.

The cost of college is a frequent topic of conversation these days—at the family dinner table, in the media headlines, even on the political campaign trail. Unfortunately, most of the conversations about college costs are based on considerations that are significantly flawed. Relying on these considerations can lead to poor decision-making and prevent students and their families from understanding the true cost of a college degree.

Net price

The primary basis for evaluating and comparing how much different colleges cost is the “average annual net price.” This is defined as the cost of one year of college after deducting gift aid received. Gift aid is assistance that lowers a student’s cost that doesn’t need to be repaid, such as scholarships, grants, waivers, etc. By law, every college must have a “net price calculator” on their website.

According to the US Department of Education, public colleges and universities have the lowest annual net price for bachelor’s degree programs on average, followed by private not-for-profit colleges and universities, then private for-profit colleges and universities. But while the average annual net price can be a helpful metric, it is by no means a completely accurate way to figure out the average cost of a bachelor’s degree. The actual average cost of a degree must incorporate how efficiently students earn a degree.

Related: How Do College Net Price Calculators Work?

Four years or more?

Simply stated, the conversation about college costs needs to shift away from the net price of one year toward the total net price to earn a degree. To do this, we must consider how many years students take to earn a bachelor’s degree at a college or university. Though each student’s situation may vary, we can use schools’ graduation rates to get a sense of the average number of years it takes to earn a degree at any given school.

The six-year graduation rate is defined as the percentage of students who start at a school as first-time, full-time college students and earn a bachelor’s degree from that school within six years. The table below shows average six-year graduation rates for public colleges, private not-for-profit colleges, and for-profit colleges, based on research from The Chronicle of Higher Education: 

College type

Graduation rate within 6 years 
(for a bachelor’s degree)

Percentage of graduates who complete in 4 years

Private not-for-profit colleges



Public colleges



For-profit colleges



Not only are students more likely to graduate from private not-for-profit colleges, but they’re much more likely to graduate on schedule (in four years). To put these percentages in context, if 100 students enrolled at each type of college, 53 of them would graduate in four years from a private not-for-profit college, compared to 33 at a public college and 23 at a private for-profit college.

This is a key factor in determining college costs, because graduating in more than four years leads to extra costs in tuition, fees, room and board. It also results in more student loan interest accruing and delays a student’s professional earnings. These are the “hidden” costs of college that few people are talking about. Clearly, when we discuss the cost of college, we must consider both annual costs and student outcomes.

Related: The Real Cost of College and How to Pay It

Invest wisely

Private not-for-profit colleges invest significant resources to promote student success, like offering small class sizes, customized academic support services, proactive intervention systems, and individualized degree planning. As a result, these colleges graduate students at higher rates and in fewer years, significantly narrowing the net cost difference between private not-for-profit colleges and public colleges.

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About Ryan Zantingh

Ryan Zantingh is the Director of Financial Aid at Trinity Christian College in Palos Heights, Illinois.


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