Public vs Private Colleges: What Is the Difference?

The Blair Arch at Princeton University.

Flickr user Harshil Shah

There are several differences between public and private colleges, from the way they are run and the cost of tuition to the programs they offer and the campus experience. When weighing public vs private college, there is no clear winner in all respects. Both types of schools have their respective benefits and downsides. Which one is the better option for you depends on your personal circumstances and what you’re looking for in a school.

Before diving into private vs public college pros and cons it helps to understand what public and private colleges are.

What are public and private colleges?

Public colleges are owned by the state and funded primarily by the state government. This is the biggest difference between public and private colleges. University of Florida, University of Michigan, University of California, and University of Washington are some of the better-known public colleges.

In addition to the source of funding, public colleges usually have much bigger campuses, more students, and larger class sizes. They also offer a wider variety of academic programs and other facilities. Most public colleges are required to reserve a certain number of seats for in-state students in order to retain their funding. Students find it easier to get accepted in public colleges in their state rather than out-of-state public colleges. Tuition also costs less for in-state students.

Private colleges are funded by student tuition fees, endowments, and alumni donations. Harvard University. Columbia University, Stanford University, Princeton University and Emory University are some of the better known private colleges.

Private colleges are generally smaller with smaller class sizes, fewer students, and a smaller teaching faculty. They also offer fewer degrees and majors. Because of the lack of government funding, private colleges are much more expensive. However, the cost of tuition is the same for in-state and out-of-state students.

Public vs private college: Cost of tuition

Public College

It’s hard to beat public schools when it comes to the cost of tuition. Because these schools are funded by the government, their costs are much lower for in-state students than any private college. Even out-of-state tuition is much lower than private colleges. 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 College

Although private institutes seem more expensive than public schools, they also have more funds available to provide grants and scholarships. It’s important to talk to the school’s financial aid office to see if you may be eligible for additional financial aid if you need it. The fact is very few students actually pay the entirety of tuition costs from their own pocket. Financial aid covers a large chunk of the tuition costs. Some students may even be offered enough financial aid to cover tuition, room and board, and book costs.

Public vs private college: One-on-One Time with Professors

Public College

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. However, office hours exist so that you can meet with your professors and talk to them outside of regular classes. Many professors are also often willing to arrange appointments outside of office hours if you have classes or work conflicts with them.

Private College

Because the amount of students in attendance is smaller, the class sizes are also smaller. Professors are more likely to know the names of each of their students. It feels as though you are getting personal instruction, which is great for some students, but others may find the extra attention overwhelming. They prefer to get lost in the crowd. This preference for one-on-one interaction with professors varies from one student to another. Only you can decide which one works better for you.

Public vs private college: Work Availability

Public College

There’s generally more work available at public institutions than private. The university itself is likely to have more job openings for students. They also have more work-study programs, making it easier for students to earn money to put towards 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 College

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.

Public vs private college: Extracurricular Activities

Public College

If you can think of it, there’s probably a club or intramural team for it at most public colleges. And if there isn’t, you can always petition to start a new club or group. Between Greek life, sports, student government, music groups, and more, there’s something for everyone.

Private College

You can likely find plenty of activities to involve yourself in private colleges as well. Private schools 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.

Public vs private college: Prestige

Public College

Though there are some public colleges that can rival the reputation of private colleges, most tend to fall a little short in this area for various reasons. Though the education received at public schools is often as good as that provided by a private school, they are not regarded as highly. It tends to be a little easier to gain acceptance at a public university although the education they offer is comparable to that offered by private schools.

Private College

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: PrincetonYaleHarvardStanfordJohn 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.

Public vs private college: Social Life

Public College

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 College

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.

As you can 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!

Subscribe to Our Newsletter

Join thousands of students and parents learning about finding the right college, admissions secrets, scholarships, financial aid, and more.