The price tag for a private college education in California, about $11,000 a year, averages about five times more than even the most expensive public university in the state.
At elite schools such as Stanford University and Pomona College, tuition runs about six times more than fees at the eight University of California undergraduate campuses, and 15 times more than the 20 California State universities.
So why should a student or, more important, their bill-paying parents, even consider a private college?
Personalized education, often tailored to the specific interests of a student, is what private colleges offer that public institutions cannot, says Jonathan Brown, vice president of the Assn. of Independent California Colleges and Universities in Sacramento.
"In essence, it's the value-added--like comparing a BMW or Cadillac to a Chevy or a Ford," adds Brown, only partly tongue-in-cheek.
Prestigious public schools such as the University of California campuses in Berkeley and Los Angeles--which placed 13th and 17th, respectively, among the top 25 universities in the nation in a recent ranking by U.S. News & World Report--may bridle at the comparison.
But what private schools believe they do best is offer:
* Smaller classes, usually taught by full professors.
* Individual academic guidance, tutoring and even psychological counseling if needed.
* A sense of community that often continues throughout a student's life.
"Students at private colleges tend to be a self-selecting group," said Stanford chemistry professor Richard Zare, winner of the National Medal of Science in 1983. "This sets a certain atmosphere; it makes them in some ways more intense. . . .
"A lot of education goes on over the dinner table, over the soup and salad," said Zare, who has been both a student and a professor at public and private colleges. "They breathe the enthusiasm and it becomes a community. . . . You can't get that as easily at public institutions."
Choices among California's more than 60 independent colleges run the gamut.
There are the small and rural, like Thomas Aquinas College, a Catholic liberal arts institution with about 175 students in Santa Paula. There are the large and urban, like 30,000-student USC.
There are women's schools, such as Mills College in Oakland and Scripps College in Claremont. There are colleges with religious affiliations, such as Point Loma Nazarene College in San Diego, which has a well-regarded teacher training program, and Southern California College in Costa Mesa, the only liberal arts college in the Pentecostal tradition west of the Rockies.
There also are specialty schools for the arts, the sciences, for languages and for professions such as the Samuel Merritt College of Nursing in Oakland.
"You pick an idea about a college and we've probably got one that meets it," Brown said. "We're a diverse group."
Nor is cost always the obstacle it would seem at some independent colleges.
"If you've got really an exceptional record in your high school, you shouldn't let money stop you from applying to a private college or university with high tuition," said Kathy O'Toole, spokeswoman for Stanford University, where tuition, room and board, books and supplies now run about $23,000 a year.
"We have a 'needs-blind' admissions policy: that is, once they decide to accept you, it's up to the financial aid office to put together a package that makes sure you can afford to come," O'Toole said.
In fact, 64% of Stanford's 6,000 undergraduates and 6,000 graduate students receive some financial aid. At Pomona College, which has a similar admissions policy, 66% of its 1,400 students receive aid toward the $22,000 annual cost.
Still, many college officials concede that students from middle-income families get squeezed.
Officials for independent colleges also contend they do a better job helping minority students graduate.
According to a recent survey of 8,700 students, 63% of Latino students at California private colleges graduated within five years, compared to 43% of Latinos in the UC system. Among African-American students, 57% graduated from independent colleges within five years compared with 35% for the UC.
"What that tells you is that minority students feel comfortable on independent college campuses, and that attention to personal needs helps students of all types graduate," Brown said.
For many students, smallness and prestige seem to be the twin lures of private colleges.
Michael McCarroll, a senior at Los Altos High in Northern California, has been accepted at Princeton and Stanford, as well as at UC campuses at Berkeley, Davis, Los Angeles and San Diego.
"Probably the most important thing for me is going to be the size of the college," said McCarroll, a National Merit finalist who plans to major in economics or political science. "That's why I'm probably going to choose Stanford. . . . It's the personal attention, the advising you get.