What’s the Difference Between a Public and Private University?

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If you are applying to colleges, then you may be wondering what the differences are between public and private institutions.  Here we cover all the ways that private colleges and universities differ from public institutions.

 

This article compares public and private nonprofit institutions. Within the private sector, there are also private for-profit institutions, which are run like businesses with the purpose of generating revenue. We have another article giving an in-depth comparison of for-profit and nonprofit institutions.


Sources of Funding

The defining difference between public and private institutions is how they are funded.  Public schools are funded mainly by state governments, while private colleges are supported primarily by their own endowment funds and students’ tuition fees.  Private colleges may also receive contributions from individual donors - perhaps in exchange for getting buildings named after themselves. (Public colleges also receive donations.)


Cost of Attendance

Another major difference between public and private colleges is the cost of attendance.  Public universities are heavily subsidized by state governments, which enables them to charge lower tuition rates to students.  In-state residents receive favorable tuition rates at public universities based on the premise that their tax dollars fund the state governments.  Private colleges, on the other hand, are more expensive because they rely more heavily on students’ tuition payments to cover their operating expenses.  Public colleges and universities are almost always less costly to attend than private schools.


Availability of Financial Aid

Private colleges and universities may be more costly to attend; however, they frequently offer more substantial tuition discounts than do public universities.  Both public and private colleges can provide federal financial aid to students, but private institutions typically have more money available to fund grants and scholarships.  Public universities, which tend to be larger in size, are better able to offer work-study positions to a greater number of students.  While private colleges are generally more expensive, their ability to offer more attractive financial aid packages can sometimes make them more affordable than public universities.  


Accreditation

A school can be accredited nationally, regionally, or not at all.  Regional accreditation, which is considered the gold standard of accreditation, is associated with the highest educational standards.  Nearly all public universities are regionally accredited, while many private colleges are only accredited nationally. Certain private schools, like those with a religious affiliation, may prefer national accreditation (such as from a church’s accrediting body) over regional accreditation.  For-profit private colleges with no accreditation are notoriously scandalous and should be avoided.


Religious Affiliation

Public colleges and universities are secular, by law, meaning that they have no formal affiliation with any religion.  Private colleges are not bound by the legal principle of separation between church and state, and therefore may be religiously affiliated.  Non-secular private colleges do not typically require strict observance of the school’s religion in order to gain admission, but secular students may be more comfortable attending a non-religiously affiliated public or private university.


Size

Public universities are generally bigger than private colleges.  The student body population, campus size, and class sizes are all bigger at public schools.  With many thousands of students enrolled at public universities, class sizes of a couple hundred are not uncommon.  The campus environment at public schools is less intimate, with professors less likely to know all of their students’ names.  However, public university campuses are more likely than those of private colleges to be well-equipped to meet students’ needs, and may feature restaurants, movie theaters, or other entertainment options, in addition to transportation.


Degree Program Offerings

Many private colleges, such as liberal arts colleges, offer only a narrow range of academic majors from which to choose.  Public universities, meanwhile, usually offer a much wider array of classes and degree programs. Students who are sure of what they want to study can benefit from attending private institutions that are well-regarded in their chosen fields, while incoming freshmen who have yet to choose a major may be better off attending a public university with many available degree programs.  


Athletics & Extracurricular Activities

Students for whom athletics are an important part of the college experience may prefer to attend a public university.  The vast majority of Division I athletic teams are from public schools. In addition, due to their larger size, public colleges and universities typically offer a wider selection of extracurricular activities than do smaller private colleges.


Diversity of Student Body

Private and public colleges are diverse in different ways.  Private colleges, which charge the same tuition rates regardless of state residency, tend to attract students from diverse geographic locations.  Public institutions, on the other hand, tend to be demographically more diverse because the tuition is more affordable. The diversity of public institutions is additionally enhanced by the wide range of academic majors available.


Prestige Factor

Lastly, and of debatable importance, the perceived “prestige” of public universities differs from that of private colleges.  Public universities typically place lower in the college rankings than private schools, and frequently have less selective admissions criteria.  Private colleges may employ more distinguished faculty or publish influential academic research more often.  The quality of education received at a private institution is not necessarily superior to that which can be obtained at a public school, but graduates of highly-ranked or “prestigious” colleges are typically more sought after in the job market.  Notably, some public colleges and universities carry as much prestige as the more exclusive private schools.


Is a Public or Private College Right for You?

That depends!  As you are now aware, there are many different factors that differentiate public universities from private schools.  The trick is to decide which factors are most important to you, and proceed accordingly.

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