The Difference Between Public and Private Colleges

College Finance
November 19, 2019
When Researching Different Colleges, The Idea That Public And Private Colleges Are Vastly Different May Never Cross Your Mind…

However, as you go through your list of colleges, you might find that there are certain characteristics shared by many schools. In general, most public colleges are larger, more affordable, and feature sprawling campuses. Private colleges are generally smaller, more niche, and very selective in their admissions process.

While not all schools will adhere to the stereotypes of public and private colleges, identifying the differences between these two types of schools can help you decide which is the right learning environment for you.


What's The Difference Between Public And Private Colleges?

The main difference between public and private colleges is the source of funding each college receives. Public colleges receive the majority of their funding from state governments. Private colleges, on the other hand, receive the majority of their funding through student tuition and endowment funding. Endowments are donations that colleges use to make investments; over time, the return on endowments is reinvested and spent to support the long-term growth of the college.

Due to the differences in funding sources, public colleges tend to be cheaper than private colleges.

Another important distinction between many public and private colleges is how they are accredited. The two types of accreditation are national and regional. Due to the strict requirements for regional accreditation, credit hours earned at regionally accredited schools are easier for students to transfer. Most public schools are regionally accredited whereas private colleges choose to be nationally accredited.


Public colleges feature larger campuses, student bodies, class sizes, and sports scenes than private universities. The vastness of public colleges often leads to private schools feeling more intimate. Private colleges offer smaller classes on campuses that are often designed to feel small and cozy, rather than sprawling.

Another difference between the campus lives of public and private colleges is the diversity represented within their student body. Private colleges generally offer a universal tuition rate that attracts a student body from across the country and around the world. Public colleges offer in-state tuition prices that allow a wide variety of demographics from within their state to be represented in their student body.

Pros And Cons Of Public Versus Private Colleges

Public and private colleges are suited toward different types of students. What makes one student love their public college could be the very reason a different student chooses to attend a private college instead.


Public colleges are state-funded institutions that generally seek regional accreditation. Public colleges are known for attracting large student bodies from residents of their state and the surrounding areas.


  • Often charge more affordable tuition rates
  • Wide variety of courses and degree program availability
  • Feature a large number of sports and student organizations


  • Large public colleges can make students feel “like just a name and a number”
  • Students looking to specialize in a high-prestige industry may have fewer options
  • Out-of-state students may have difficulty affording high-cost out-of-state tuition

Public colleges are a great option for students looking to explore all that college has to offer them. Ambitious students will almost certainly find a variety of clubs, organizations, sports, and student hangouts to keep them occupied on campus. Academically, public colleges offer you the widest range of possibilities to discover your passion.


Private colleges are funded by student tuition and donor endowments. Many private colleges choose to seek national accreditation, while other private colleges pursue no accreditation. In contrast to public colleges, private colleges tend to attract student bodies from a variety of locations around the world.


  • Ability to offer extensive financial aid packages
  • Feel more close-knit and prestigious
  • More likely to meet students from around the globe


  • Schools with national accreditation award credits that are difficult to transfer
  • Private colleges generally charge higher tuition rates
  • May lack the variety of courses and programs you’re looking for

Private colleges are a good choice for students who already know what major and industry they’d like to enter. Many private colleges are known for their excellence in a handful of studies, and their graduates in those industries start with an advantage. In addition to the historic and close-knit feel of the average private colleges, many private colleges are currently working to bolster the social life on their campuses as well.

How To Choose The Right College For You

Every student has a different process for weighing their college options. Picking the right college can feel like a monumental task, however, there are questions you can ask yourself that help make the decision a little easier to make.

A word of warning: Don’t just pick one college to apply to, even if it seems like the perfect fit. While you may feel confident and secure in your choice, life happens and situations may change or not work out the way you hoped for. Make sure you apply to several colleges to keep your options open.


Selecting the right college major to match your interests and career goals is an important step in choosing to go to college, and it doesn’t necessarily have to be completed before you select which college you’re attending.

However, it’s essential that you consider your major selection (or what you think it may be in the future) when you make the choice between public or private college. Due to their large size and public funding, many public colleges offer a wider variety of degree programs than private colleges, many of which choose to specialize in certain areas of study.

For students who haven’t made a final decision on what their major will be yet, the wide breadth of options available at public colleges may make them feel secure. Equally, a student who has known they’ve wanted to be a lawyer since elementary school won’t worry if they’re choosing the right school when they’re applying to Harvard.


Even if you swear you hated the atmosphere of your high school, it’s important to take it into consideration when comparing public and private colleges. Students from small schools will be unaccustomed to the feel of a sprawling public college; students from large schools may feel suffocated and as if surrounded by helicopter-professors at an intimate private college.

Of course, these observations say nothing about whether you’re ready for a change of pace. Many students attend colleges that are vastly different from their high schools and thrive.

However, taking the time to decide if you’d like to attend a college with a similar feel to your high school or something completely different can help you feel more confident in your college choice. You may even be surprised to find that you’re drawn to colleges that have atmospheres similar to your old high school.


It’s important to look at the numbers for each individual college you’re applying to, regardless of whether it’s public or private. While many colleges fit into the general stereotypes associated with public and private colleges, every college is unique and has a different way of doing things. Important numbers to look into for each college you consider include:

  • Average GPA, SAT, and ACT scores of incoming students
  • The college’s acceptance rate
  • The college’s freshman retention rate (an indicated of how happy students are)
  • The student to faculty ratio
  • Graduation rate and employment rate post-graduation
  • The total cost of attendance for four years

Two great websites for finding these stats are Niche and the U.S. News and World Report.

One major concern where the numbers differ between public and private colleges is the total cost of attending. Public colleges, in general, are more affordable than private colleges. However, a variety of factors go into determining how you’ll pay for college, and therefore you shouldn’t let a high attendance cost stop you from applying to private colleges you want to attend.


For a large majority of careers and industries, where you went to college won’t matter to your future boss nearly as much how well you apply what you learned during college. From accountants to computer engineers, a large variety of fields don’t place significant weight on whether you attended a public or private college.

However, there are career fields where the college you went to matters immensely. Close-knit, high-stakes industries such as law, advanced medicine, politics, finance, and higher education place a lot of value on the college that you attended.

Many private colleges, such as Princeton and Brown, evoke images of professionalism, academic performance, and ambition. Students seeking entrance into competitive careers should investigate which colleges’ alumni are thriving; from there, you can curate your own personal list of colleges and research each option.

At the end of the day though, if you end up changing your mind about where your future career will take you after committing to a college, that’s ok. What matters most is your skills and talents, and how you apply them to the working world!

Public Versus Private: The Choice Is Yours

Just as every college is different, so is every student. The choice between a public and private college may not seem like a big deal, but the difference is big enough to change the entire feel of your college experience. It’s essential that you take the time to think about what type of college atmosphere would best suit your personality, goals, and learning style.

If you find yourself needing a bit of help during this process, our WeAdmit counselors have worked with countless students to identify their higher education goals and make them a reality. Together, we can build the right team of college counselors to help you succeed. Our goal isn’t just to help you get into the right college; our goal is to help you achieve your dreams beyond college.

So, it’s time to ask yourself: what type of college is right for me? Once you’ve found the answer, we’ll help you from there.

Let’s Do Our Research And Get Into College!



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