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As you begin researching colleges you may want to attend, you likely are noticing that some schools are public while others are private. But what does this mean?
Like most things when it comes to researching colleges, a lot of answers to your questions will vary from school to school. There are very few universal characteristics that are true across the board. However, there are certainly some trends that distinguish public and private schools.
Neither public nor private schools are inherently “better” than the other. Different aspects of schools are better for different people, and selecting a college is a very individual process. Make sure you do your own research about specific schools you might be interested in. In the meantime, here are some things that tend to be true when comparing public and private universities.
Sources of Funding
One of the most important differences between public and private schools is their sources of funding. Public schools are funded by state governments and taxpayer dollars. As a result, most public schools offer lower rates of tuition, especially for in-state students.
Private universities, on the other hand, receive most of their funding from their endowment and student tuition. Additionally, private colleges rely on donations from alumni and charitable organizations, which is why there may be many buildings named after people. Public schools can rely on donor funds as well.
Cost and Tuition
We just covered different sources of funding, which is crucial to understanding different tuition rates between public and private universities. Because private schools have to rely on student tuition to maintain their operational costs, many private school tuitions are higher than public school tuitions.
We also mentioned that due to public schools relying on state funding, in-state tuition is offered at a discounted rate for in-state students. Out-of-state students are still welcome to apply, but their cost of attendance will likely be higher. Even so, many out-of-state tuition costs at public schools are still lower than many private school tuitions.
Don’t let the higher prices of private schools deter you from attending, though! Our financial aid section next covers why high tuition rates aren’t necessarily the end-all-be-all.
It is true that many private schools are generally more expensive than public schools, whether you’re an in-state or out-of-state student. However, due to large endowments and generous donors, many private schools are able to offer very generous financial aid packages that public schools cannot, especially to low-income and first-generation students.
Many private schools meet 100% of admitted students’ demonstrated financial need. Additionally, some private schools offer loan-free financial aid packages. This means that despite an exorbitant sticker price, students with financial need can end up paying a fraction of the tuition, without taking out any loans.
If you are relying on financial aid offers, it might be smart to wait to receive financial aid packages from schools before deciding. This is particularly relevant if you are considering applying Early Decision or Early Action. With financial aid offers, students may have to pay less for a prestigious private college than for their in-state university!
Accreditation is an independent certification process that ensures that colleges and universities are held to high educational and professional standards. The United States Department of Education does not accredit schools, but it does recognize several accreditation boards. You should only look at schools that are accredited by a DOE-recognized organization.
There are two main types of accreditation: regional and national. Regional accreditation is generally seen as more elite. Almost all public schools and many private schools are regionally accredited, while some private schools are only nationally accredited. This is important because it can be difficult to transfer credits from a nationally accredited institution to a regionally accredited institution.
Student Body and Diversity
Now that we’ve covered the financial and structural differences between public and private schools, let’s look at the experiences of attending them.
Due to the higher sticker prices, private schools tend to have less diversity in their student body’s socioeconomic status. There tends to be a larger percentage of students with higher family incomes. Additionally, due to the lack of in-state tuition discounts, private schools tend to have larger geographic diversity. Students from all over the country and the world attend in higher numbers.
On the flip side, a public university tends to have a large proportion of its student body from the surrounding geographical area and states. They also tend to have greater socioeconomic diversity due to lower tuition prices and fewer barriers to entry.
These are general trends that vary across schools. As always, do research for the schools you are particularly interested in!
Many public universities are significantly larger than private universities. Ohio State University and University of Minnesota are both public schools with student bodies of over 50,000 students! As a result, many courses in a large public school, particularly lower-level courses, have enormous class sizes. Lectures can have hundreds of students and only one professor.
Private schools, on the other hand, tend to have smaller student bodies. Most private universities have undergraduate populations between 1,000 and 10,000 students. Due to the smaller student bodies, private schools tend to have smaller class sizes.
Don’t be fooled, though. Many public schools offer small seminar-style classes, and many private schools have giant lectures with hundreds of students. The best way to figure out the details for your own schools is to research average class size and the faculty to student ratio.
Because public schools tend to be bigger than private schools, they also tend to offer a wider variety of degrees and academic programs. There are often a wide variety of colleges within the university that cover many different fields.
Private schools, on the other hand, are more likely to be more highly regarded in a narrower subject field. For example, a small liberal arts or engineering college may only offer degrees in their respective fields, but may be considered more prestigious in that field than your state’s public school.
Because public schools are funded by state governments, they cannot be religiously affiliated due to the separation of church and state in the United States. This means that they must be secular.
Private schools do not have to abide by the separation of church and state, so they can be affiliated with a religious institution. Religiously affiliated private schools do not usually require strict observance of their religion by students, but make sure to research schools’ requirements to be sure! Many non-religious students are completely fine attending schools with religious affiliations, but some students may be more comfortable finding a secular school, whether public or private.
If you love the idea of attending fall football games in a crowded stadium with thousands of fans as a part of your college experience, you might be looking at mostly public schools. Most NCAA Division I schools are public schools, and with such large student bodies and alumni networks, crowded game days are often a part of the school culture.
Private schools can still have an athletics culture, but it can be more subdued and less integral to the school’s campus culture. This isn’t a hard and fast rule, though; many private schools compete in Division I athletics, and many public schools compete in Division II or III.
If you are interested in competing as an athlete, your college choices will vary depending on the sport in which you want to compete and at what level. Athletes who want to be a part of a very competitive culture and a big game day experience will likely look at public Division I schools, which may result in looking at mostly public schools. Athletes who want to compete on a less competitive scale may look at Division II and III schools, or other sports agencies like the NAIA, which tend to be most prolific at private schools.
Regardless of public versus private or NCAA classification, most colleges have many extracurricular and club opportunities for those who want to play sports less competitively! These opportunities exist even at schools that already have NCAA teams.
Both public and private schools can and do have thriving social scenes. A large public school is more likely to have a social scene that centers around athletic events and Greek life. Additionally, a large public school’s town might be more catered to the social lives of college students, with local restaurants and theaters designed with a college-aged population in mind.
Private schools, on the other hand, are less likely to have social atmospheres centered on athletics. However, many private schools have a wide variety of extracurriculars that are the focus of students’ social lives.
Generally speaking, graduation rates at private universities (66%) are higher than graduation rates at public universities (60%). Some may attribute this to smaller average class sizes at private schools and more one-on-one time with faculty.
However, there are many reasons for this disparity that have nothing to do with the quality of the institutions. As mentioned, public schools tend to have greater socioeconomic diversity in their student bodies; as such, there are many outside factors that disproportionately affect low-income students and may prevent them from getting a degree.
Ultimately, a student’s success at a school is a highly individual journey. What’s more important than whether the school is public or private is whether the school is best for you personally.
If you thrive in a big pond and like having many options to choose from, you will likely find more success at a large, public school. If you tend to work best in smaller environments, a more narrowly focused, small private school may be where you find the most success.
Due to systemic forces that advantage the wealthy, private schools, which are most expensive, tend to have very successful alumni networks with many famous and wealthy alumni.
The advantage of a large public school’s alumni network is that due to larger student bodies, there are simply a greater number of people who have attended and graduated from larger schools. As such, it can be easier to find and network with alumni in your chosen field.
Both are great advantages to a college student and/or recent grad looking to network in their chosen career!
One of the most talked-about differences between public and private schools, and the difference with the most debatable importance, is the prestige of these different schools. Many lists of top colleges and universities are overwhelmingly populated with private schools, as these schools tend to have the most resources for research funding and the most prestigious faculty.
Public schools tend to have less selective admissions criteria and higher acceptance rates, which cause them to be seen as less prestigious. They also tend not to have the same name recognition as many public schools.
This prestige factor does not speak to the quality of education at these schools. Many great minds attended and graduated from excellent public schools. And, like most things, there are always exceptions. Many public schools, such as the University of California – Berkeley and the University of Michigan, have excellent reputations that rival the best private schools’ – so much so that some schools are considered Public Ivies.
It is crucial not to allow the prestige factor influence your college decision more than it deserves. As you can see, there are many, many differences between public and private schools, and it’s important to consider the whole picture when selecting a college.
Examples of Private Colleges
All of the Ivy League schools – Harvard, Yale, Princeton, the University of Pennsylvania, Brown, Dartmouth, Cornell, and Columbia – are private universities. These schools have a lot of name recognition, but here are some other names to give you an idea of the wide variety of private schools available.
- Stanford University
- Amherst College
- Massachusetts Institute of Technology
- University of Southern California
- Rhode Island School of Design
- Oberlin College
- University of Dayton
- Gonzaga University
Private schools vary widely in size, specialty, and location. Research is your friend as you learn more about these and other private schools!
Examples of Public Colleges
Most people are familiar with their own state’s flagship university. A state flagship university is generally the most well-known university in the state and generally the first public university founded. However, there are many public schools, including and beyond flagship universities. Here are some examples:
- Virginia Tech
- University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
- William & Mary
- Penn State
- Texas A&M University
- University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
- Purdue University
- Colorado School of Mines
Once again, it is clear that public schools span a wide variety of sizes, interests, and locations. There’s something for everyone!
Conclusion: How do I know if a public or private university is right for me?
Ultimately, if you are unsure if a public or private school is best for you, your best bet is to apply to a wide variety of schools, including both public and private universities. There are so many factors when it comes to selecting a college that basing your decision on public or private can really limit you.
Of course, take everything in this article into account when deciding where to apply and attend. But the most important factor is where YOU will thrive the most and where YOU will set yourself up for the most future success.