Skip Navigation
U.S. Capitol Banner
Policy & Advocacy

The Value and Benefit of Public Universities

Public universities were founded with the mission of advancing the public good – providing a life-changing education to students from ordinary backgrounds; undertaking pathbreaking research that saves lives, drives innovation, and enhances quality of life; and engaging their communities to tackle some of the most intractable challenges they face. 


What Students Pay at Public Universities

Graphic of college cost at 4-year publicsProviding a high-quality and affordable college education is central to public universities' mission. Despite decades of cuts in state funding, they continue to provide the most affordable path to a quality college education

  • Published in-state tuition and fees at public four-year universities average $10,940. These prices rarely reflect the actual cost students pay.

  • On average, in-state students at public four-year institutions paid just $2,250 in tuition and fees after scholarships, grants, and tax benefits have been taken into consideration.

  • 2.6 million or 36 percent of students at public universities receive Pell Grants, federal grants aimed at helping low-income students access college.

Public University Student Debt Facts

Image of student debt breakdown for public universitiesPublic universities are committed to helping students graduate with the least amount of debt possible, including by containing costs and reducing the time it takes to earn a degree. 

  • About 42 percent of students at four-year public universities finished their bachelor’s degree without any debt and 78 percent graduated with less than $30,000 in debt. Only 4 percent of public university graduates left with more than $60,000.

  • Among those who borrow, the average debt at graduation is $25,921 — or $6,480 for each year of a four-year degree at a public university. To put this number in perspective, consider that recent college graduates earn $22,000 more annually than peers of the same age whose highest degree is a high school diploma.

Employment and Earnings For College Grads

Graphic of earnings by educationWorkers with bachelor’s degrees enjoy vast employment and earnings benefits.

  • Bachelor’s degree holders are half as likely to be unemployed as their peers who only have a high school degree. 

  • Median annual earnings for bachelor’s degree holders are $36,000 or 84 percent higher than those whose highest degree is a high school diploma. 

  • Bachelor’s degree holders make $1.2 million in additional earnings on average over their lifetime.

How College Graduates Benefit Society

Graphic of tax contributions of college graduatesThough college has sizable benefits to individual graduates, college graduates also provide significant benefits to society at large.

  • Compared with individuals whose highest degree is a high school diploma, bachelor’s degree holders are 24 percent more likely to be employed, 3.5 times less likely to impoverished, and nearly five times less likely to be imprisoned.
  • In all, lifetime government expenditures are $82,000 lower for college graduates than for those with high school degrees.
  • Because of their higher earnings, college graduates also contribute more in taxes. They contribute over $510,000 in taxes during their lifetime—$273,000 more than a high school graduate.

How Public University Research and Community Engagement Benefits All

Graphic of public universities meeting community needsPublic research universities are major drivers of discovery and innovation through their pathbreaking research – saving lives and enhancing quality of life while fueling job creation and economic growth. Through their community engagement efforts, they partner with their regions and states to tackle the most pressing issues they face.

  • Public research universities conduct two-thirds of university-based research and a large share of federally funded research. This research improves our collective understanding of the world around us, helps cure debilitating diseases, and fosters innovations that grow our economy. 
  • Public research universities played a central role in developing: touch screens and lithium-ion batteries that are used in smartphones, laptops, and electric vehicles; a variety of antibiotics used to treat diseases like tuberculosis; and breakthroughs in crop genetics that sowed the seeds of the Green Revolution, helping save a billion people from starvation globally.