The Difference Between Public and Private Colleges


With over 2000 colleges and universities in the United States, it can seem like a scary process narrowing down where you want to apply and deciding which schools might be a good fit. There are so many things to consider, such as location, size, and what majors are offered. Overwhelmed by all the possibilities, pre-collegiettes? A good place to start is looking at the differences between public versus private schools. However, many girls do not understand the distinction between the two.

The main difference between public and private universities is the tuition price and how they receive their funding. Marcy Williams, CEO of Kollege and Kareer 4 Youth (KAKY) and author of College Prep Handbook explains this clearly. According to Williams:

“Public schools are usually funded by federal and state funds.  The availability of financial assistance is greater and if you attend within your state of residence, the cost savings can be significant,” Williams explains. “Private colleges, on the other hand rely on donations, grants and other means of funding the school. Therefore, the tuition costs tend to be much higher as they do not receive as much federal assistance. However, private schools have more flexibility with their costs and can offer different types of assistance for students where public schools must adhere to federal regulations.”

Here are a few factors to consider when thinking about where you might like to apply:

Cost and Admission

For many collegiettes and their families, the cost of college is a major factor in choosing a school. Because of how schools receive their funding, it is important to understand how this affects tuition at public and private schools.

If you live in the same state as the public university you want to attend, you’re eligible for the in-state tuition rate, which is typically lower than the out-of-state tuition rate.  For example, a girl from California who wanted to go to UC – Davis (a public school in-state) could expect to pay about $32,168 for tuition and fees, room and board, and estimated personal/transportation expenses, while she could expect to pay about $52,779 to attend University of Michigan (a public school out-of-state).

Private universities do not have the benefit of state subsidies, or receiving money from the state to help cover costs, so the declared tuition costs will be higher. However, the financial aid offered tends to be higher at private schools than it is at public schools due to larger endowments and private contributions, so don’t automatically assume that just because a private school might have a higher stated tuition rate that it is unaffordable. According to US News and World Report, “Financial aid can become so generous, in some cases, that the most expensive private school may end up being cheaper to attend than a state university.”

“I think a big part of deciding between a public and private school might come down to financial aid,” says Macelester College sophomore Sydney Nolan. “I found that the private school I'm at now had more to offer me financially because of the school's endowment than the public university I went to last year.”

Whether at a public or private school, financial aid all comes down to how you present your case to the university. US News has a helpful guide to getting a great financial aid package, as well as a whole portal with articles about paying for college.

Private and public schools also approach admission differently. Public universities tend to admit more in-state students than out of state students, since students from in-state are eligible to receive the benefits from the government. Private universities are not limited to accept applicants based on where they're from and will therefore admit a more geographically diverse class. Thinking about what kind of student body you would fit in to is another way to figure out where you want to apply.

School Size, Classroom Size and Programs Offered

Public universities typically admit larger classes, meaning that total students can be in the tens of thousands. In fact, the largest university for 2012 – 2013 is Arizona State University, with upwards of 60,000 students enrolled. This translates to larger class sizes and less one-on-one time with faculty. Professors may lead classes in giant lecture halls, with smaller discussion sessions led by teachers’ assistants, or TAs. However, more students means more majors offered in a variety of different areas, and more options for classes.

Private universities tend to admit fewer students, meaning that you will be a part of a smaller student body. For collegiettes nervous about being lost in the crowd, private schools can be a very attractive option.

Class sizes may also be smaller, which means it may be easier to get into the classes you need and there are more opportunities for one-on-one attention with professors.

“At a private school, you get a lot more one-on-one attention because of the size of the university,” says UC-Davis senior Danielle Burnstein. “While at public school you kind of have to fight your way to get small classes and have time with the professor (or at least in some cases).”

While public schools tend to be larger than private ones, this is not always the case. Private school New York University (NYU), has about 22,500 undergrads, while public school College of Charleston only has about 10,500.

The number and type of extracurricular programs offered is another factor to consider in choosing a school. Public schools may offer a wider variety of programs since they are catering to a larger student population, but private schools may have more funding to designate for student organizations.

“My private school also tends to cover more student costs,” says Sydney. “I went to India over winter break for a fraction of the actual cost, since the school picked up a bulk of the tab. This trip was actually cheaper than a similar opportunity I had last year to go to Ireland through the public university.” 

School Reputation

Many pre-collegiettes who don’t know where to start when making a list of schools to apply to automatically go to the ones they’ve heard of and ones that have good reputations or rankings. US News releases a list every year of the best colleges in the United States based on a variety of different criteria. While it can be a good thing to look at, rankings are not everything. In fact, there is a lively debate going on right now among experts in higher education about the importance of college rankings.

Some private schools, like those in the Ivy League, are known for their high rankings and competitive application process. However, do not assume that if you do not go to a “name brand” school, this will negatively affect you in the future.

“Often, students choose private colleges because they think it may read as more prestigious on their resume and may be more valuable in the long run,” says Williams. “That is a myth. In fact, there are several private schools that do not have any advantage of public schools when it comes to obtaining a job.”

There is something to be said for going to a school that employers will recognize when they read your resume and that has a strong alumni network for you to tap into in the future. However, it is much more important to go to a school that is a good fit for you and where you can excel academically.

While it is good to understand the difference between public and private schools, it is only one of many factors to consider when choosing the best school for you. Many collegiettes apply to both types, choosing to see where they get in and how much financial aid or scholarships they are awarded. Don’t stress, focus on what you are looking for in a school and where you will feel most comfortable, and most importantly, get excited about starting your college career!