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What Is The Difference Between Private And Public College?

Last updated 03/15/2024 by

Jamela Adam

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Private and public colleges differ in their tuition cost, funding methods, class size, and educational opportunities. When choosing what university to attend, it’s best to consider your personal educational goals rather than price alone. Both types of institutions have their pros and cons, so be sure to consider all of your options before deciding on one.
It’s important to understand the difference between private and public colleges. Mainly because they offer different benefits and drawbacks. Private colleges are usually more expensive than public colleges, but they also tend to have smaller class sizes and more personalized attention from professors. Public colleges, on the other hand, are often less expensive but offer a more traditional college experience with larger class sizes.
So, which is right for you? It depends on your individual needs and preferences. Read on to discover the main differences between a private college and a public college. And, hopefully, by the end of this article, you’ll have a better idea of which you’d prefer.

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What are the main differences between private and public colleges?

Deciding whether to attend a public or private college can be difficult, especially if you’re torn between two equally great schools. Here are the main differences between public and private colleges to help you make a more informed decision about your college education.

Funding methods

One of the key differences between public and private colleges is how they’re funded. Both public and private colleges rely financially on student tuition fees, endowments, and donations from alumni, but public colleges also receive funding from state governments.
This difference in funding affects many aspects of college life, from the quality of education to campus facilities.

Class size and student diversity

Public universities tend to be larger than private colleges, with more students per teacher in the classroom. This means that sometimes classes may feel overcrowded, or professors may not have enough time for each student. Also, due to their higher acceptance rates and affordable tuition costs, public universities tend to attract students from various demographic backgrounds.
Private colleges usually offer smaller class sizes and more individualized attention from teachers due to their lower number of students. And though private universities tend to be more selective, because they charge the same tuition regardless of state residency, their student bodies are generally more geographically diverse — with students coming from all parts of the country and the world.

Cost of attendance

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, on average, the cost of tuition for an undergraduate degree from a 4-year private nonprofit college annually is $36,700 vs. $9,400 from a public college.
In other words, the average tuition for a private college is more than three times that of a public college. And while private colleges often offer more scholarships and financial aid, the gap can still remain large for some students.
So what accounts for this disparity? There are many factors at play. One of the primary reasons is that private colleges ⁠— whether they’re for-profit or nonprofit organizations ⁠—are not funded by the government. This means that private colleges rely heavily on tuition and donations from their students and alumni, which in turn drives up the cost.

Pro Tip

Private colleges are known for giving out generous merit scholarships for students requiring financial aid. These financial aid packages could often cover full tuition as well as room and board.
So, don’t cross a private college off of your list upon seeing its expensive price tag. Use the financial aid estimator on the school’s official website and speak with the financial aid office before making your decision.

Graduation rates

With thousands of students competing for spots in the same classes, it can be difficult for students in a public college to secure a spot in the class they need to take. And if they fail to enroll in certain classes, they might have to postpone their graduation date.
According to data published by the National Center for Education Statistics, as of 2019, the 6-year graduation rate was 62% at public institutions and 68% at private nonprofit institutions. They also found that the more selective the college, the higher the graduation rate is.

Program offerings

Compared to private colleges, public universities not only have a larger student population but also tend to have a wider variety of majors to choose from. For example, the University of California, Los Angeles offers more than 200 programs — including 125 majors and 90 minors for undergraduate students to explore.
Whereas private colleges tend to be smaller in size and warrant fewer options for degrees. For example, Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles provides around 60 majors and 55 minor undergraduate degrees and programs, half of what UCLA offers.

Research opportunities

Another key distinction between private and public colleges is the availability of research opportunities.
Public schools tend to have better research opportunities because they have more funding available from the government. This allows them to invest more in research and development each year, as well as provide a wider variety of facilities, labs, and equipment.
By contrast, private universities generally have fewer research opportunities as well as facilities on campus. Though there are exceptions — for example, top private research colleges such as Stanford University and Princeton University — the majority of small private colleges aren’t able to match public universities in terms of research efforts.

Pro Tip

So, if you’re interested in pursuing a career in research, public colleges may be a better option for you. Other important factors include location, cost of attendance, and the type of academic environment you want to be surrounded by.

Which one is right for you?

College is a pivotal time in your life. It’s during these formative years that you learn and grow. As such, it’s important to make sure that the time and money invested in higher education is worth it. This means choosing the right college.
In addition to the features we discussed above, here are some other important factors to consider to help you make the best decision.

Learning experience on campus

Colleges can be costly, so it’s crucial to figure out what you want from your college experience before deciding where to go. Since private colleges tend to be smaller, students can usually expect more individual attention from professors. On the other hand, public colleges are much bigger in size, which means potentially fewer opportunities to interact with the professor.
If you’re looking for a more intimate learning environment, then a private college may be the best choice for you. But if you’re looking for more opportunities in terms of majors selections and research opportunities, then a public college could offer you a more ideal academic experience.

Extracurriculars and athletics

Public colleges tend to have larger athletic departments (often with varsity teams) and more opportunities for students to participate in clubs or student organizations. Small private colleges also offer a variety of activities, but they typically don’t have as many resources available as public schools do.
Of course, there are plenty of private schools such as Harvard University and MIT that offer amazing athletic and extracurricular programs. But overall, if sports and campus events are important to you, you may prefer public colleges over private ones.


Another important factor to consider is the college’s location, as this can also affect the tuition you pay. For example, if you’re a New York resident considering attending UCLA, you should expect to pay $44,830 in total for out-of-state student tuition fees. But if you attend the State University of New York, the cost can be brought down to around $7,070 for the year.
In this case, it might even be cheaper to attend a private university in New York compared to a public university in California. For example, Monroe college — a private for-profit college in New York — has an annual tuition fee of around $14,976, which is still significantly cheaper than UCLA’s out-of-state tuition.
FundingMostly based on tuition and donationsMostly funded by the government
Class sizeSmaller classes
More personal time with professors
Large classes
Less personal time with professors
CostTend to be more expensive
Average above $36,000 annually
Often cheaper, around $9,500 per year
Graduation ratesOften a better graduation rateLower graduation rates because of large but limited class sizes
ProgramsFewer programs and majorsNumerous majors and minors to choose from
ResearchGenerally offers fewer research opportunitiesLots of research opportunities and funding
ExtracurricularsOften fewer extracurriculars*Usually greater extracurricular options, including varsity teams
Financial aidScholarships available to more studentsStudents often rely on federal student aid
*Not always the case, as seen in many of the Ivy League colleges such as Harvard, Yale, and Stanford.


Why are private universities so expensive?

Private universities tend to be more expensive than public universities because they don’t receive funding from the government. Instead, they rely on tuition fees, endowments, as well as donations from individuals and organizations. As a result, private universities generally have a higher sticker price in comparison to public universities.
It’s important to note that by applying for financial aid at a private college, you can often make your net tuition cost more in line with that of a public school. Private colleges also tend to offer more scholarships to students, which will further reduce the large price.

Pro Tip

To avoid taking on too much student loan debt, start saving for college as early as you can, whether that’s through opening up a 529 plan, working a part-time job, or applying for scholarships.

What is an example of a private college?

Many of the United State’s most prestigious, renowned, and selective colleges are private schools. This includes all of the Ivy League schools — Harvard University, Brown University, Cornell University, Dartmouth College, Columbia University, the University of Pennsylvania, Princeton University, and Yale University.

How much does a public college cost?

On average, the cost of tuition for an undergraduate degree from a 4-year public college is around $9,400. Overall, the average out-of-state tuition from a public college is about $26,382.
Depending on the state that the college is located in, the average tuition can vary as well. For example, in California, the average public college tuition cost is $8,319. In Illinois, however, this cost can go up to $14,259.
Though tuition may be cheaper in some states, overall, the cost of a college education has been on the rise. Since 1963, the annual cost of tuition from a public 4-year college has risen from $2,029 to $9,349 — a difference of over $7,000.

Key takeaways

  • One of the major differences between public and private institutions is how they acquire funding. Public colleges are funded by their state governments, whereas private colleges receive funding from students’ tuition payments, donations, as well as endowments.
  • In the United States, the average tuition for a private college education is more than three times that of a public college.
  • Private universities tend to offer a more intimate learning environment due to their smaller size. And though public universities are less intimate, they generally provide more opportunities in terms of majors selections, athletic programs, extracurriculars, and research opportunities.
  • It’s important to take into consideration the school’s location when choosing colleges. If it’s out of your home state, you may be expected to pay expensive out-of-state tuition fees.
  • Though the sticker price of private college tuition fees can seem quite high at first, you can lower the cost by applying for financial aid and qualifying for merit scholarships.

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