Students who attend private colleges are often forced to take on loads of debt to achieve that goal. And while public universities are by no means cheap, they're generally less expensive than their private counterparts.

Case in point: For the 2016-2017 school year, the average cost of tuition at a private college was $33,480. (Note: That's just tuition -- not room and board.) But at public universities, the cost of tuition averaged $24,930 for out-of-state students, and $9,650 for in-state students.

A building on a college campus.

Image source: Getty Images.

A new report by Student Loan Hero, however, reveals that in some cases, private college might actually be cheaper than going the public route. In fact, the study identified 20 schools whose costs came in well below the typical price of public university tuition for out-of-state residents -- which means that college hopefuls may have more options than they previously thought.

Making private colleges more affordable

First, let's get one thing straight: While some private universities offer lower tuition than public schools, on a national level, private colleges tend to charge more. But if you're willing to really look around, you might uncover a great private school whose tuition is less than that of a public out-of-state school, or even, in rare cases, an in-state school.

Here are just some of the private colleges where you might get a break on tuition:

College Name

Cost of Tuition and Fees

Brigham Young University (Utah)

$5,150

Amridge University (Alabama)

$6,900

Columbia College (Missouri)

$8,240

Blue Mountain College (Mississippi)

$10,582

Alice Lloyd College (Kentucky)

$11,460

Mercy College (Ohio)

$12,530

Davis College (New York)

$13,540

Barclay College (Kansas)

$14,390

College of the Ozarks (Missouri)

$18,730

Alaska Pacific University (Alaska)

$19,610

Data source: Studentloanhero.

Students who attend all of the above schools can expect to borrow less for college, on average, than those attending public universities. But while the reason, in the case of the schools highlighted here, boils down to low tuition, sometimes private colleges with higher-than-average tuition can still end up being cheaper on a whole. That's because private colleges often have scholarship and grant opportunities that public universities may not manage to match.

If you're applying for a specialized program, it especially pays to see how much money you'll get out of a private college that features your area of study. Some universities offer additional grant dollars for specific majors or fields, so before you write off the idea of attending a private college, you'll want to do your research and see what's available.

Financing a college education

Even if you opt for a college whose tuition costs are relatively low, there's a good chance you'll still end up borrowing money to cover your education. But if you're smart about borrowing, you'll be less likely to find yourself burdened by student debt in the years following your graduation.

For one thing, if you reside within commuting distance of the school you decide to attend, skip the dorm experience for a couple of years and live at home. The price of room and board starts at around $10,000 for most colleges, and can often be significantly higher. Eliminating that expense for even half of your college years could shave $20,000 off your total cost.

Another thing: Limit yourself to federal loans when you borrow money for college, and aim to avoid private lenders at all costs. Not only are you likely to pay more in interest, but private loans offer much less flexibility when it comes to repayment. If you can't get at all of the money you need through federal loans, find a job and work while pursuing your degree. Many schools (both public and private) offer work-study programs, and the more you earn during your college years, the less debt you'll need to take on.

Saving in advance

Of course, the best way to pay for a college education is to start saving for it many years in advance. Typically, that's a responsibility that falls on parents, but those who start early enough are apt to have an easier time paying those tuition bills once they start coming due.

Case in point: Socking away just $300 a month for college over an 18-year period will leave you with roughly $111,000, assuming that money is invested and earns a somewhat conservative average annual 6% return.

And speaking of investing, while you can always stick your money in a traditional brokerage account, if you save for college with a 529 plan, you won't pay a dime in taxes on your investment earnings, assuming you use those funds for qualified higher education expenses, like tuition, fees, and books. Though traditional brokerage accounts are less restrictive (you don't have to use your money for college specifically), they also don't offer that same crucial tax break.

No matter where you choose to go to college, the key is to pick a school that offers the education you need at a price that's reasonably affordable, relatively speaking. The last thing you want to do is rack up a mountain of debt and then suffer the consequences well into adulthood.

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