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Private vs. Public College: What Are the Differences?

private vs. public college

Are you getting ready to apply to colleges? You might be wondering about the difference between private colleges and public colleges. Is one better than the other? Are there more gains to be had from one over the other? Is one more prestigious?

They can be different, but they also have a lot in common. 

Choosing a college is a huge decision, and you want to make sure that you make the right choice for you. Picking between a private vs. public college is one part of that decision. 

If you’re unsure and you need a bit of help, don’t worry. Here are just a few of the differences (and perhaps a surprising similarity or two) between public and private colleges. 

How Do They Rank?

When it comes to rankings, private and public colleges aren’t so different, but only if you go international. Oxford University, for example, is one of the most prestigious universities in the world and is a public university.

In the United States, however, the top-ranked Universities are all private universities.

The ranking doesn’t necessarily designate the quality of education that you’ll receive while studying. It does, however, help out future job prospects. Names that come with prestige can carry a resume and earn a higher starting salary.

If you’re solely looking at schools in the United States, private universities have the rank. Worldwide, however, this isn’t true. 


Private universities tend to have more geographical diversity on their campuses than public universities, but why is that?

Well, public universities, at least in the United States, tend to offer reduced tuition to students that reside in-state. Many of these students are first-generation college students that the public universities are trying to attract with lower fees.

Private universities don’t have such offerings, and their funding options tend to rely on merit or need alone instead of geography.

This means that you end up with students from all around the country or even the globe. There will be, in general, more geographical diversity in private universities.

That said, there will be more diversity of other kinds in public universities due to the lower cost and increased accessibility.

When more people have access to something, more different people are going to utilize it. They just tend to be people from the same geographic location.

Class Sizes

If you’re the type of person who likes a lot of help and interaction from the professor, a private university will probably be for you when it comes to class sizes. 

Public universities often have huge student bodies (in the tens of thousands of students), with many people needing to take the same courses. While it filters down by the time you get to specialized classes (upper-level classes do often have small class sizes), general education classes and entry-level classes can have over 100 students.

This can make it difficult to talk to a professor one on one if you need help, with many tasks like that delegated to TAs or other helping staff.

Private universities have smaller student bodies (often far below 10,000), and therefore also can keep class sizes smaller. There are fewer people to fit into each space. Students are able to talk to the professors individually or in small groups with considerably more ease. 

Class size is considered important across all grade levels, but some college students feel independent enough that it’s not a significant factor for them. This is entirely up to you for whether or not it’s essential.

Cost and Tuition

Cost is where the biggest difference comes in between private vs. public college. 

While funding options are available from many private universities, they are almost universally more expensive than their public counterparts. A private university, before funding offerings, can cost six figures just for a four-year degree. 

Public universities also offer funding and have considerably lower costs (especially to in-state students).

College is costly, even before buying books, affording rent, or purchasing any needed supplies, tuition can really put a dent in someone’s bank account (or future bank account if they took out a loan). If cost is a major factor for you and you don’t qualify for funding options, this is a serious category to consider.

Degree offerings

Public universities offer more in terms of choice when it comes to available majors. There will often be options from every category to choose from, ranging from art to neuroscience, to engineering, to education. With so many students, they’re able to offer so many majors.

For the student who still has “undecided” in their major plans, this might be the right choice for you.

Private universities often offer less in terms of majors. They have fewer options, but they may specialize in one specific category (or several specific categories). You may find a school devoted only to STEM majors, or a school exclusively for the arts. 

For the student who is dead-set on their future major with no chance of change, this is an excellent choice for you.

Private vs. Public College, Which is For You?

Choosing a school is a big step. When deciding between private vs. public college for your next academic adventure, it’s important to take everything into account and try to figure out what factors are most important to you. 

Remember that this is a (most likely) 4-year commitment, so whatever you choose, you should be comfortable with everything that it has to offer you. 

At the end of the day, what’s important is that you get your education in a safe and comfortable environment where you’re able to focus on learning.

For more articles on college life for students like you, check out our blog! Whether you’re a college student or a college student-to-be, there’s plenty of helpful info for you.

About the Author

Christopher Manns

I was born in the UK, grew up in Canada and have lived in the USA since the 90s. I love my family, water sports, ice hockey, skiing and soccer. When I'm not helping people save money on textbooks, I'm travelling with my wonderful family and playing sports.