Public vs Private Colleges

By Jordan Fabel •  Updated: January 31, 2022  •  5 min read  •  Education
Approved Course is reader-supported. If you buy through links on our site, we may earn a small commission.

Getting a college education helps to open up many job opportunities. Choosing between a public and a private college can be difficult, however. These are two very different types of colleges, but they also have plenty of similarities.

While both public and private colleges have become harder for many students to afford, getting a degree is still vital to your career success. From 2019 to 2020, postsecondary enrollment in the United States did drop by 2.9 million, according to the Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey.

This decline has a bigger impact on the smaller private colleges than on public colleges. However, public colleges are still impacted. Even with these issues, students are still applying to college and choosing between public and private colleges.

If you’re trying to make this decision, it’s important to understand the differences. Let’s look at what each type of college is and how they are different.

What is a Public College?

A public college is a higher education institution funded by the state government. This type of school will be set up by the state, as well. Often, they even have the word “state” in the name.

Examples of public colleges include:

Often, these colleges are named for the state, but not always.

What is a Private College?

A private college is a higher education institution that is funded by individuals and not the government. They can be “for-profit” or “non-profit” institutions.

If the private college is a non-profit, it will focus on providing students with a quality education. They will have a board of trustees instead of shareholders or an owner.

A for-profit private college is a business. This type of college will have an owner or shareholders. While they might provide a quality education, they will only keep programs that continue to make a profit.

Non-profit private colleges are the most reputable. These include top schools, such as:

For-profit private colleges include options, such as DeVry, ITT Tech, and the University of Phoenix. While they can still deliver a quality education, these colleges don’t have the same high reputation as a non-profit college.

Public vs Private Colleges: The Key Differences

There are many differences between a public and private college. However, there are some differences that are more important than others. These five key differences will likely help you make your decision between a public or a private college.

1. Programs

There is a big difference between the programs offered by a public or private college. This is seen even more with liberal arts colleges, which offer fewer options compared to public colleges.

Often, public colleges offer more degree programs and have a larger student body. For example, Purdue University, which is a public college in Indiana, offers more than 200 majors to choose from. Most private colleges won’t come close to offering 200 majors.

2. Tuition/Cost

Maybe the most important and biggest difference between public and private colleges is the cost. Public colleges are funded by the government, which means they can charge a lower tuition rate. Government subsidies help to cover the costs to run the school, which means students pay less per credit hour.

This is the biggest reason why in-state students gain a big discount on public colleges, too. Since in-state student tax dollars help to fund the state government, they gain a discount compared to out-of-state students. The average cost for a four-year college for in-state students is about $8,400, while out-of-state students will pay closer to $19K.

Private colleges depend on tuition to help fund the school. The cost of attendance is very high compared to public colleges. At a private college, the average cost is about $30K, which is much higher compared to the in-state rate for public colleges.

3. Financial Aid Offered

While both public and private colleges offer some form of financial aid, it can vary quite a bit. Both will offer federal financial aid through grants and student loans. However, private colleges tend to have more money for grants and scholarships for students that qualify.

Since private colleges get large endowment funds, they can use these funds for scholarships and grants. While private colleges charge more for tuition, they also provide larger discounts, scholarships, and grants for students.

4. Research Opportunities

Public colleges tend to offer more research opportunities compared to private colleges. This is due to government funding. Since private colleges offer fewer resources and research facilities, they tend to offer fewer opportunities. However, there are exceptions to this rule, such as Cornell University and Johns Hopkins University. Both offer incredible research opportunities.

5. Class Sizes

Public colleges tend to have much larger class sizes, especially for introductory courses. Students tend to get less direct access to professors. Many courses will be more of a lecture-style course than one with class discussions.

When you attend a private college, the class sizes are often smaller. This means you gain more one-on-one attention from the professor and classes will include more discussion.

Choosing Between a Public or Private College

Often, your decision between a public or private college may depend on the programs offered or the cost. It’s not as simple as choosing one or the other. While a private college may offer more prestige, some public colleges also offer prestige.

Deciding between the two may depend on how you prefer to learn and the type of campus life you want, as well. Public colleges tend to be much larger, while private colleges will have a smaller campus, in most cases. If you prefer to be around more people and on a larger campus, you will likely prefer a public college.

Neither a public college nor a private college is wrong or right for everybody. There are plenty of great colleges that fall into both categories. Do your research and look at the programs offered before you choose the right college for you.

Jordan Fabel

Jordan Fabel

Covering different 'paths' that people's lives can take. Creative, foster parent, ticket dismissal, you get the idea. Exploring the requirements, certifications, exams, and obviously, approved courses along each path. I, personally, am the high school dropout son of two teacher parents. So how did I get here? That story is coming soon!