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 Public Vs. Private Colleges

As you begin to delve deeper into your college search, one of the issues you’ll likely encounter is the debate between attending a public or private college.  Arguments both for and against often invoke strong feelings and sentiments.  Certainly, some are quick to assert the merits and prestige of private colleges while others insist they are not worth their tuition bill.  Of course, the matter isn’t strictly black and white and both types of schools offer their own assets and drawbacks.  To help you understand the delineation between the two, here’s a quick overview of some of the differences.

Funding and Tuition

When discussing the differences between public and private colleges, one of the first issues to arise is tuition cost.  To understand the disparity, you first must recognize that the two types of institutions are funded by distinct means.  Public universities are funded primarily through state taxes.  Private schools, on the other hand, rely on tuition, endowments and donations.  Therefore, you’ll quickly discover that the sticker price for a private college is a lot higher than a public school.  

Moreover, because funding comes directly from state taxes, residents who decide to remain in-state for college are able to attend at a lower cost.  After all, their taxes are helping to pay for their education.  Of course, students hailing from elsewhere are still most welcome to apply (and attend), however their tuition bill will be higher. Even so, out-of-state tuition is often still lower on paper than private school tuition. 

Conversely, it’s also imperative to recognize that you cannot go by sticker price alone.  While the cost of private college might seem exorbitant to many, these schools often offer generous aid packages to undergrads who demonstrate financial need.  And, depending on the aid package received, actual tuition at a private school might well be comparable to (or even lower than) that at a state school. So, if you think that you might qualify for significant financial aid, don’t discount private colleges/universities on cost alone.          


On average, public institutions tend be a lot larger than private ones.  While it’s common for a private school to have a student body hovering around 2,000 undergraduates, it’s routine to find state schools with an undergraduate population over 20,000.  

This is often reflected in the classroom as well.  Indeed, small class sizes (and easy access to professors) are typically a hallmark of private colleges.  Public schools, however, are known for large classes.  Don’t be surprised to find a lecture hall filled with 200 or more undergrads.  Of course, it’s also important to the highlight the fact that the higher the course-level, the smaller the class is likely to be.  This usually holds true for both public and private colleges.

Size also has its advantages.  Public schools definitely provide a much wider selection when it comes to course offerings, available majors and degrees conferred.  And many are also a hotbed for conducting groundbreaking research.

Graduation Rates

Many students enter college with the assumption that they will graduate within four years.  However, that is not the case for a significant number of undergrads.  Clearly, there are a myriad of reasons and factors for this, some personal and some institutional.  However, generally speaking, private colleges have higher four-year graduation rates than do public schools.  This can be attributed, in part, to the more personal attention students often receive at a smaller, private college.  Additionally, students at public universities sometimes have trouble enrolling in the classes they need to graduate.  Obviously, this prolongs their education.  Though, it should be noted that this is certainly not the case across the board.    


As you might expect, public schools attract a large number of in-state residents.  After all, admission priority is typically granted to in-state applicants.  Additionally, requirements are often more stringent for out-of-state students.  Further, as we mentioned above, tuition costs are lower for residents making state schools quite attractive to some locals.  

As a result, you’re likely to find more geographic diversity at a private college.  Indeed, private schools don’t tend to favor one area over another.  In fact, they typically welcome applicants from all over the country (and even the world).  However, it’s also necessary to mention that the smaller a student population is, the more homogenous it might feel in other ways, such as racial, ethnic or socioeconomic diversity.

Though the aforementioned attributes do ring true, it’s just as important to note that there are definitely exceptions.  You can find small public institutions that provide plenty of personal attention and private colleges with a myriad of research opportunities (or small schools mired in red tape, etc.).  Indeed, public vs. private isn’t about better or worse.  When deciding on where to apply (or attend), it should really come down to whether or not a school meets your academic, financial and social needs.  Remember, a lot of what you get out of college depends on what you put into it and that goes for the largest state school or the smallest liberal arts college.



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Don Munce