Public University versus Private University: What’s the Difference?

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When looking at the different types of colleges available, you may be curious about choosing public vs. private colleges.

Public University versus Private University

Are there any advantages to choosing one type over another? Does one provide a better degree program than the other? Many students want to know what’s the difference between public and private colleges.

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There are quite a few things to keep in mind when examining each option, so we’ve compiled a look at the difference between public and private university programs.

What’s the Difference Between Public vs. Private Colleges?

College students walking out of the campus

Fundamentally, there is generally no difference between private and public college programs, as far as whether they are “good” schools or not.

Both private and public colleges may offer both broad and highly specialized degree programs. It is common for both types of schools to be known for academic excellence too.

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The difference between public and private university programs usually relates to the size of classes and the number of classes offered. There may also be differences in student resources and opportunities beyond the classroom.

What Is a Private College?

Students attending private college

A private college is typically funded by private sources, such as donors, tuition fees, and endowments. As a result, the tuition costs for these schools are typically higher but are usually the same for students who live locally or are traveling for college.

Generally speaking, private colleges have smaller student populations than public colleges. This means that class sizes are often smaller, and there are more opportunities to build personal connections with professors. Classes may also be more specialized and focused. Private colleges are frequently smaller and may have fewer faculty members and areas in which you can major.

What Is a Public College?

Students attending public college

A public college is typically funded by the state government in addition to student tuition and fees. As a result, public colleges tend to be much larger, in the sense of larger facilities, more faculty, and a higher student population.

Public colleges often offer lower “in-state” tuition rates for students who live in the same state. International students and those who come from “out-of-state” are expected to pay higher tuition rates. With potentially thousands of students, public colleges may have multiple campuses for each particular degree program. You may find a greater number of potential majors and topics to study at a public college.

7 Key Differences between Public vs. Private Universities

When considering the differences between private and public college programs, you may wish to take a close look at how their sizes and funding impact a few key areas. Both your research and networking opportunities may be impacted by the type of college you choose.

These are some of the differences between public and private colleges and how attending one or the other may impact your education.

1. Public vs. Private Colleges: Tuition Cost

College friends checking on tuition fees and other expenses

The biggest difference between public and private colleges usually lies in the price. A private university tends to run a little (or a lot) higher than a state-funded public university.

While there are financial aid options, perhaps even institution-specific scholarships or grants, private universities usually come with heftier price tags to start with — and funding can be slightly harder to come by.

2. Public vs. Private Colleges: Programs Offered

College student discussing with professor

A public university usually offers a larger selection of classes, majors, and even extracurriculars than a private university, which can be good news for the undecided college freshman!

More class offerings can give you the chance to sample possible career choices without having to transfer colleges if you change your mind down the line. On the other hand, a private university with a smaller selection of majors might be well known for its more specialized programs and majors and help you find your focus in the subject you care about.

What’s more, a growing number of accredited online colleges now offer many degree options for students.

3. Public vs. Private Colleges: Research Opportunities

College students researching in library

Another difference between private and public college experiences may be the research opportunities afforded to you as a student.

Because public schools are often more expensive and receive greater state funding, they typically have a greater variety of research facilities, libraries, and laboratories. These opportunities can be beneficial to students pursuing a variety of degree programs. Generally speaking, different disciplines will have their own dedicated facilities, resources, and staff.

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On the other hand, private colleges frequently have smaller research facilities, libraries, and labs. Since the materials often come from private donors, though, research opportunities may involve unique resources and state-of-the-art equipment.

4. Public vs. Private Colleges: Class Size

College students attending a lecture

From class size to campus acreage, public universities generally run much larger than the typical private college. Private schools often possess smaller classrooms and usually a more compact campus, which can help you get to know your professors and other students.

Choosing a professor at a smaller college is often easier as well. Some students like the vibe of a large college campus, though. There are that many more students with unique ideas to bring to the table! A large campus may provide plenty of on-campus options as well, like campus movie theaters, restaurants, and even transportation.

5. Private vs. Public Colleges: Culture and Diversity

Diverse college students discussing their project

It’s not uncommon for a private university to have a religious affiliation as well, like the University of Notre Dame (Catholic), Yeshiva College (Orthodox Jewish), or American University (Methodist).

If you aren’t religiously inclined, you may feel more comfortable at a non-affiliated public university or even a non-affiliated private university, like Marietta College or Cornell University. If a religiously affiliated college sounds good to you, there should be plenty of like-minded students to connect with at a religiously affiliated private school.

Both public and private schools can have culturally diverse populations. Both types of schools often have a variety of clubs and organizations for people from different backgrounds or with different interests as well. A look at your prospective school’s website can give you an idea of the student population and the campus’ offerings.

6. Private vs. Public Colleges: Prestige and Reputation

Student applying in a prestigious college

There are some people who consider a private university a career boost from the start, regardless of how its programs rank nationally. This belief is based on these schools’ typically selective status, but there are college admissions that are just as selective at public universities.

There are many colleges, both private and public, that have prestigious reputations.

7. Private vs. Public Colleges: Networking Opportunities

Freshmen college students networking with their seniors

Most experts recommend that all students begin networking during their undergraduate years, regardless of whether they choose a private vs. public school.

Due to the smaller size of the graduating classes and overall student body, private colleges have become well-known for their robust alumni networks. Frequently, alumni have experienced success in their fields of study and encourage up-and-coming students. Private school alumni are also frequently involved in ongoing endowments and scholarship opportunities at their alma maters.

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Public colleges tend to have higher enrollment numbers, which means it’s unlikely that all students will know each other. In recent years, social media has helped public college alumni connect on a greater level. No matter which direction you are thinking of going when choosing colleges – public or private, there may be no better way to decide than the college visit!

It is important to keep your options open and not discount a college until you find out the facts for yourself. You can talk to students, sit in on a class, and explore what you want out of your college experience!

How to Choose Between Private Schools vs. Public Schools

students checking which college to enroll

Choosing the schools you want to apply to can be a tricky process. Many schools offer similar degree programs, extracurricular activities, and courses that can make them very attractive to students.

When you’re trying to decide between private vs. public school there are several things that you may want to keep in mind:

  • Overall cost: While private schools generally have higher costs than public schools – including tuition, fees, and even room and board – they may offer a greater range of scholarship and grant opportunities.
  • Size: Public schools typically enroll a greater number of students. As a result, class sizes and the actual size of the campus are generally much larger than private schools.
  • Extracurricular activities: If you are dedicated to a particular sport, hobby, or club activity, you may wish to review the student activities offered by each school. Private colleges often have smaller teams and clubs due to the size of the student body.
  • Learning environment: Public schools tend to have bigger class sizes and less one-on-one learning time with professors, while private schools are often smaller.

When choosing between a private or a public school, it’s important to consider the overall student experience in addition to the programs offered.

Public Colleges vs. Private Colleges Pros and Cons

Your choice of whether to attend a private vs. public university may depend on a lot of factors, but here are a few common pros and cons to each type of school:

Private Colleges Public Colleges
  • Tuition does not vary for in- or out-of-state students
  • Smaller classes with more one-on-one instruction and discussions with professors
  • Typically have tight-knit communities in which all feel welcome to participate
  • Generally have lower tuition costs, especially for in-state students
  • Usually plenty of options for courses and major
  • Frequently offer more relaxed admissions requirements to allow more enrollees
  • Typically more expensive tuition, room and board, and other fees
  • Usually more selective and require specific admissions requirements
  • Usually offer a more limited and specialized curriculum
  • Bigger class sizes often mean less personalized education
  • Larger campuses may mean more transportation requirements
  • Greater competition for scholarships, team placements, and course participation

Carefully considering the atmosphere, community, activities, and cost in addition to areas in which you’d like to focus your studies can help you make your choice between a public or private school.

Are Private Colleges More Expensive?

Students in a private college

Private college tuition is typically higher than in-state tuition at a public school. That being said, there are many factors that need to be considered in the overall expense of attending college.

Not only do you need to pay for tuition, but you will have cost of living expenses, such as room and board, as well as fees for parking, activities, health facilities, and more. These expenses can add up. Private schools are known for providing greater and more generous financial assistance opportunities, though, which can help offset these expenses.

Are Public Universities Non Profit Institutions?

Students attending a public university

All public universities are non-profit institutions, but many private schools are as well. The term “not for profit” or “non-profit” means that any tuition payments, government funding, or private donations received by the school are directly invested into providing education. They may go to salaries, resources, or facility upkeep.

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Colleges that are “for-profit” not only receive money through tuition, funding, and donations but also through investors and corporations. These schools often focus on particular skills or career paths and provide students with education specific to those fields.

Do Private Universities Get Federal Funding?

Private college students reviewing their research papers

While public universities often receive funding from their state government, private universities are funded by tuition payments from students, as well as private donations and endowments from alumni and other organizations.

Federal financial aid – such as you may receive after completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) – is accepted at both types of schools. At the same time, students who attend private universities typically have more opportunities for financial assistance directly from the school, thanks to scholarships and grants set up by donors.

Public vs. Private University: Which Is Right for You?

Student attending college

There are many things to keep in mind when choosing between a private vs. public university. You may wish to consider whether you are more comfortable in smaller or larger classroom settings, as well as your study and extracurricular habits.

It’s also a good idea to consider which type of school best fits your professional goals. If you haven’t decided on a major, perhaps you want a school with lots of options to choose from. While it’s a good idea to keep expenses in mind, there are plenty of things to look at when researching which school is right for you.

To get started, you can start researching accredited public and private universities today!

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Elizabeth Abner
WRITTEN BY Elizabeth Abner

Elizabeth is pursuing a Doctor of Philosophy in Foreign Policy and earned her master's degree in business administration. For her undergraduate studies, she earned a Bachelor of Arts in Business Administration with a concentration in international business. Elizabeth's research is focused on universities offering online degree programs.