You’ll face plenty of difficult choices when looking for the perfect college. Likely, one of the first you’ll encounter will be: should I attend a public or a private institution?
Before you make your decision, it’s important to know the key differences between public and private colleges and universities.
What’s the Difference Between Public and Private Colleges?
Funding is the main distinction between a public and a private college. Public universities receive government subsidies while private colleges mainly rely on student tuition fees.
The cost of attendance is generally higher at a private college, which has a ripple effect on areas such as campus and class sizes, extracurricular activities, and even the diversity of the student body.
How Do I Choose Between Public and Private Universities?
This question often sparks great debate. Some argue that judging by tuition costs alone, public universities are the obvious choice. Others insist that private colleges are worth the higher cost of tuition because students can receive a better education.
Of course, the answer is ultimately up to you and your academic expectations. The only way to make a final decision between public and private institutions is to carefully weigh the differences and decide what is right for you. Here’s what you have to consider:
Cost of Tuition
Naturally, how much your education will cost is a significant factor when choosing a college. So let’s take a look at these distinctions first.
Cost of Attending a Public College
Generally, public universities are the less expensive option, as they’re primarily funded by state taxes. This is because most of these schools were created to give state residents access to education (that’s also why in-state tuition is so much cheaper!).
Expenses like faculty salaries are subsidized by public funds. The lower tuition rates that result can be particularly handy in avoiding heavy student loan debt.
Cost of Attending a Private College
Since private universities do not receive any financial support from the state, they depend on tuition fees, endowment funds, and private donations to cover running expenses — which means that students are expected to shoulder the hefty cost of attendance.
But don’t take the original sticker price of private college tuition at face value. Private colleges tend to offer generous aid packages and scholarships that can significantly lower the amount you need to pay.
Financial Aid Availability
Both public and private colleges can provide federal financial aid packages to help minimize college expenses for their students. So keep this in mind before disqualifying any of your options based on the tuition cost alone.
Private colleges are known for offering more substantial financial relief measures for qualified undergraduates because they typically have money to spare for scholarships and grants. Depending on the financial aid package, you may even be able to even attend private schools for the same price (or even less!) than public colleges.
Campus and Class Size
Do you thrive amid a buzzing sea of students, or would you be more comfortable in a cozy classroom of coeds? Public universities often have larger student populations compared to private colleges because of affordability and location.
Naturally, this has an impact on class sizes. It isn’t irregular for public universities to hold lectures attended by hundreds of students, especially for intro-level classes.
Meanwhile, students in private colleges benefit from easier access to their professors, and the intimate class settings can encourage more discussion within the group.
When it comes to degree programs, public universities tend to offer a wider range of academics compared to private colleges. The large student population helps make this possible, as there are more students to attend the courses. For many, this attractive array of options may make public colleges a great choice.
However, while private schools may offer fewer programs, they often have a specific focus. Students who know what they want to learn can benefit from attending a private institution that’s well-recognized in their particular field of study.
Demographics and Diversity of Students
Another difference between public and private institutions is student demographics and diversity.
Research has found that public universities typically have a more diverse student population because of affordable sticker prices and a wider selection of degree programs. Public schools are also more popular with in-state students because, in addition to cheaper tuition rates, in-state students are given priority during admission.
However, private colleges can be more geographically diverse because they don’t have state-specific benefits. The reputation of well-known private institutions and their standardized admissions process often entices international students who dream of studying at a US college.
Since public universities are commonly larger in campus size, a greater number of student clubs and recreational activities may be available compared to smaller schools. Of course, this doesn’t mean that private colleges have nothing to offer to their students. You can still see similar clubs and extracurricular activities but on a smaller scale.
Depending on your school, both public and private institutions can offer a vibrant Greek life or a fun party scene. The number of restaurants, theaters, and other fun go-to spots outside campus heavily relies on your school’s location.
College accreditation is a process that higher education institutions undergo to ensure that their services and operations meet the standards set by recognized accreditation agencies.
It may not be the first concern that comes to mind when choosing a school but it’s important to consider, as a school’s accreditation can impact credit transfers, employability, and more. If a school is accredited it also means that it can provide quality education to students and that it has passed strict service and operational standards.
Usually, schools can be regionally or nationally accredited. Regional accreditation can be awarded to academic-focused institutions that are non-profit or state-owned. National accreditation can also be given to entire institutions but it extends the benefit to vocational and trade schools that weren’t originally founded as colleges or universities.
Both accreditation types have their distinctions. Credits from regionally-accredited schools can be transferred to any institution. Meanwhile, credits gained from nationally-accredited schools can only be transferred to a similarly accredited college. Naturally, tuition costs are more expensive in schools that have regional accreditation.
Athletics and Extracurricular Activities
Thanks to a larger student body, you can enjoy a wider selection of extracurricular activities, such as student clubs, sports, or theater groups in a public university. Private colleges certainly have their fair share of campus activities but having fewer students can mean a more limited selection.
For high school student-athletes who wish to continue athletics in college, public universities might be your top option. The majority of Division I sports teams come from public schools. Private colleges have their own sports teams and activities but again, the smaller, more intimate campus size means that there are fewer choices.
If prestige is what you’re after, private colleges may be more appealing because of the worldwide recognition that these institutions often receive. The reputation of Ivy League schools contributes to this mindset especially for students who are not from the US.
While the question of superiority over the quality of education in either type of institution may not be easily answered, private colleges do attract the teaching services of more renowned experts and publish more academic journals and research.
Regardless, some public colleges and universities are considered to be in the same league as prestigious private schools.
A college degree can be an expensive investment so it’s only natural to choose an institution that has the best possible return on investment.
Private colleges have degrees that are more marketable because of the school’s perceived prestige. Their students also have access to successful alumni networks which can be valuable in the long run.
In terms of salary, research shows that financial returns are slightly higher for students who attended private non-profit colleges than for students from public universities.
However, what you do with your education speaks volumes more than where you studied. Various degree programs found in public universities can widen the job options for their graduates. Additionally, cheaper tuition rates can lessen student debt which may allow students to pay off their loans sooner.
It may be normal to assume that a four-year course can be completed on schedule but undergraduates soon realize that it isn’t a simple feat. Common reasons that cause delays include prioritizing work over education, taking only a few courses at a time, and failing classes.
If graduating on time is an important factor for you, then private colleges often have slightly better numbers. The four-year graduation rate for private nonprofit schools stands at 55.3 percent compared to the 38.8 percent of public institutions. For the six-year graduation rate, private colleges still lead by 67 percent with public colleges trailing close with 61 percent.
The question of whether private colleges are better than public universities, or vice versa, is entirely up to perception. Any college will have its advantages and downsides, and the right choice will always depend on your needs and preferences. So good luck with your decision!
Frequently Asked Questions About Public and Private Universities
Is public college the same as community college?
Public colleges and community colleges are not the same. The main difference between the two is the length of the degree program. Usually, public universities offer four-year course programs that require students to take general education classes for the first two years before attending classes that focus on their chosen course.
Community colleges, on the other hand, have two-year degrees or certificate courses that can help job seekers, college students, and international students. Community colleges also offer traditional classes in math, history, and English which can enable people to enter the workforce.
Community colleges are generally more affordable, and in some states, students can attend community college for free. Some students choose to study at a community college for the first two years before transferring to another university.
What are the top private colleges in the US?
The Wall Street Journal and Times Higher Education used 15 key performance indicators to rank 100 private colleges and universities. The criteria included areas such as graduation rates and successful student loan debt repayments which matter most to students and families.
The research found that the top 10 private colleges in the US are:
- Harvard University – Cambridge
- Massachusetts Institute of Technology – Cambridge
- Yale University – Connecticut
- Stanford University – California
- Brown University – Rhode Island
- Duke University – North Carolina
- California Institute of Technology – Pasadena
- Princeton University – New Jersey
- Cornell University – New York
- Northwestern University – Illinois
What are the top public colleges in the US?
The 2021 WSJ/THE survey reviewed hundreds of public universities in the US and found the top 10 to be:
- University of Michigan – Ann Arbor
- University of California – Los Angeles
- The University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill
- University of California – Berkeley
- University of California – Davis
- University of California – San Diego
- The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
- University of Washington – Seattle
- Purdue University – West Lafayette
- University of Virginia – Charlottesville
How many private and public colleges are in the US?
There are 4,298 post-secondary institutions in the US, according to NCES in 2017. That number is made up of:
- 1,626 public colleges
- 1,687 private non-profit universities
- and 985 private for-profit schools
The number of private and public colleges in the United States is slowly decreasing. This can be attributed to the financial state of some of these schools.
How many people go to private vs. public colleges?
There were more than 20 million college students enrolled in private and public colleges in 2020, according to NCES. Around 14.8 million students (74 percent) were enrolled in public universities, while 5.15 million (26 percent) were attending private colleges.