Public vs Private Colleges: What Is the Difference?

The Blair Arch at Princeton University.

Flickr user Harshil Shah

While there is no doubt that post-secondary education has become almost essential in our country to compete for job, there is debate concerning which type of school is better: private vs. public. Both types of schools have their pros and cons. It really depends on what you are looking for in a school. These comparisons represent general tendencies to help you decide which might suit your interests best, but it’s always important to remember that schools are not limited by these generalizations.


Public Schools: When it comes to tuition, it’s hard to beat public schools. Because they are assisted by the government, their costs are much less for in-state students than any private college. Even out-of-state tuition can be more manageable. Public universities will also offer small scholarship awards for good grades, and you can apply to many national level scholarships or ones offered through the university.

Private Schools: Although private institutes seem more expensive than public schools, they also have more funds available to provide grants and scholarships. The important thing to remember is to talk to the school’s financial aid office to see what can be done for your situation. My understanding is that very few students have to pay the entirety of tuition costs; some students can even be offered enough financial aid to cover tuition, room and board, and book costs.


Public Schools: Though there are some schools that can rival the reputation of private colleges, the public universities tend to fall a little short here for various reasons. Though the education received at public schools is not less than what is provided by a private school, the recognition is not always there. It tends to be a little easier to gain acceptance at a public university, but that doesn’t make it any less valuable an education.

Private Schools: People tend to attach greater prestige to private colleges. They often (but not always) have some of the best professors working for them. The fact that most classes are taught by tenured faculty rather than graduate students or adjunct professors helps people feel more comfortable about the quality of their education. When it comes to academics and research, most people recognize private institutions by name: Princeton, Yale, Harvard, Stanford, John Hopkins, etc. It’s harder to get into schools like that, which enhances their reputation as being the best. It can also lend their graduates an air of credibility.

One-on-One Time

Public Schools: Due to the size of state funded universities, it can be more difficult to have one-on-one time with your professors. Classes tend to be much larger than at a private college, leading some students to feel they are lost in a sea of faces (not necessarily the case. My Clinical Psychology professor lectured a class of about 200 students, but she knew who I was when I went to talk to her because I had answered a few questions in lecture). However, office hours exist so that you can meet with your professors and talk to them. Many professors will also be willing to arrange appointments outside of office hours if you have classes or work conflicts with them.

Private Schools: Because the amount of students in attendance is smaller, the class sizes are also smaller. It can feel as though you are getting personal instruction, and the professor is more likely to know your name. It’s hard to hide in a crowd when there are only fifteen other people in you class.

Work Availability

Public Schools: The amount of work available is greater at public institutions than private. The university itself is likely to have more jobs for students, as well as work-study programs to assist payment of tuition. You might also find that the surrounding community has plenty of jobs for college students. Depending on the course of study you choose, you might also have more time to work than at a private school.

Private Schools: While work-study is likely available, the job selection is slim at private colleges. The expectation is that you focus on your studies, so if you want to be working through college, you might have a harder time.

Extracurricular Activities

Public Schools: If you can think of it, there’s probably a club or intramural team for it. And if there’s not, you can always petition to start a new club or group. There’s something for everybody between Greek life, sports, student government, music groups: The list goes on.

Private Schools: You can likely find plenty of activities to involve yourself in here as well. Private colleges like to get their students involved in activities. Though some of the groups might be smaller than at public universities, there are just as many options available.

Social Life

Public Schools: There are probably more school-sponsored events to go to with your friends, and of course you can always hang out at other places. Because students at public universities are more likely to live off-campus, there is the possibility of having fewer restrictions at those locations. There is also a larger pool of potential friends to be made (although don’t be surprised when you end up chilling with the same four people for the next four or five years of your life). You are also more likely to find non-traditional college students.

Private Schools: The school will likely host events every few weeks or so, and the Greek life students will probably have parties every weekend (just like at a public university). Most private school students continue living on campus, so you might not always have room for huge game nights.

So you see, there are pros and cons to both public and private institutions. Which one is “better” really depends on the individual students themselves. Interested to see if you’re matched up to a public or private college, and what sort of financial aid you could receive from them? Enter your information and let College Raptor do all the hard work and show you the results!


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