Private vs. Public Colleges: Whatโ€™s the Difference?


There are nearly 6,000 ๐Ÿ˜ฑ colleges and universities in the United States; as a student, that means you have a vast selection of higher education institutions to choose from! Factors like location, majors offered, diversity, and student life should be considered when putting together a college list ๐Ÿ“ or selecting a college to enroll in. An additional factor that a student may also contemplate is whether a college is private or public. While it may not be the most exciting and essential factor to discuss, private institutions and public institutions can offer many different student experiences and financial benefits.

The core difference between a private college and a public college is where they acquire funding. Public universities receive most of their funding ๐Ÿ’ฐ from state governments, while private universities receive funding from tuition fees, alumni, and endowments (aka huge donations).

The Rundown on Public Colleges

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Public universities in the United States are notable for being large and financially accessible ๐Ÿšช to those who are in-state. Class sizes are typically larger, majors available are more diverse, and tuition rates are relatively lower.

Examples of public institutions include: ย  ย  ย  ย  ย  ย  ย  ย  ย  ย 

  • UC schools in California (UC Berkeley, UCLA, UC San Diego, etc.)
  • UT schools in Texas (UT Austin, UT Dallas, etc.)
  • SUNY schools in New York (Binghamton University, Stony Brook University, etc.)
  • University of Michigan
  • University of Virginia
  • Ohio State University
  • University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill
  • University of Washington

The Rundown on Private Colleges

Private universities in the United States are known for being smaller and more generous ๐Ÿ’ with financial aid. Class sizes are typically smaller, majors available are more specialized, and tuition rates are relatively higher. Examples of private institutions include:

  • The Ivy League schools
  • Stanford University
  • Duke University
  • University of Southern California
  • Massachusetts Institute of Technology
  • Vanderbilt University
  • Georgetown University
  • Washington University in St. Louis
  • Tufts University
  • Emory University

Key Differences Between Public and Private Colleges

An academic experience at a public university will feel different from one at a private university due to a multitude of factors. At the end of the day, finding the school that is the right fit ๐Ÿงฉ for you should be the most significant priority; from tuition rates to class size, here are the key differences between public and private institutions:


Public universities often offer lower tuition to in-state students, which is a significant benefit for students applying to public universities in their home state. The lowered cost of tuition for students is due to public schools receiving funding straight from their state governments ๐Ÿง‘โ€โš–๏ธ rather than relying on tuition fees and endowments.

Attending a public university will likely cost less than attending a private university, particularly if you are applying as an in-state student. If cost is going to be a sizable factor for you and your family, you may want to research ๐Ÿ”Ž a couple of public colleges to see if they could be the right fit for you. However, it is important to note that there may be exceptions. Merit-based scholarships, need-based scholarships, and financial aid packages ๐Ÿ“ฆ are three examples of how an education at a private college could potentially end up being more affordable than at a public college.

For more information, check out this Fiveable guide about scholarships to learn about different types of scholarships and how to get them!


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Public universities and their campuses are often much larger in size compared to private universities; it is common for public colleges to hold thousands of students, typically with a more significant number of local students compared to private colleges. In addition to offering reduced in-state tuition to students, public colleges may also be required by state governments ๐Ÿ› to accept a certain number of in-state students so that they can maintain funding. That being said, while there is a large student population supported at public colleges, it can be common for acceptance rates to be selective ๐Ÿ”’ at public universities due to their designated spots for in-state, out-of-state, and international students.

Being independent and ambitious are key characteristics for a student attending a public university. Due to the large campus and available opportunities, students attending a public school often feel like a small fish ๐ŸŸ in a big pond. This can be a benefit since students studying at public institutions will have access to a massive network of classmates and alumni, mentorships, internships, and research opportunities. On the other hand, it can also be easy for students to feel directionless ๐Ÿ˜ฐ when placed in such a large environment.

Private universities, on the other hand, are often smaller in size. With a generally smaller student population compared to that at a public university, there are more specialized research and academic opportunities to go around. This often creates a far less competitive atmosphere, with mentorship and guidance resources more readily accessible for students.

Class Size

In addition to a large student population and a large campus size, class sizes tend to be larger at public universities. It is possible, and sometimes common, to be enrolled in a class ๐Ÿ“š with hundreds of students at a public college. If large classroom settings are not how you envision your early years at college, then education at a private college instead may be the better choice.

At a private college, it may be easier to form strong connections with professors and academic advisors due to the smaller class sizes. Group projects and smaller group discussions are common in the classroom. With higher accessibility to professors ๐Ÿง‘โ€๐Ÿซ and more personalized learning, it may also be easier to access research opportunities, internships, and academic support. If you are a student who is looking for guidance and extra support during your time at college, then a private college may be the more suitable option.


Life outside of academics is another significant factor for students to consider. The variety and number of extracurricular opportunities go hand-in-hand with the size of the institution. Public colleges often have a vast selection of extracurricular activities to choose from, as well as a vibrant athletics scene โšฝ๏ธ. Division 1 athletic teams, for example, tend to be found at public universities. From theatre to rocket science ๐Ÿš€ to entrepreneurship and everything in-between, public colleges typically offer a much more varied selection of opportunities.

Because private colleges are smaller in size, their selection of extracurricular opportunities is often smaller, similar to their selection of majors and degree programs.

Programs and Majors

Private universities typically offer fewer majors and programs than public universities. Notable examples include liberal arts colleges, which emphasize the humanities and arts ๐ŸŽญ. At a public university, there is a vast selection of majors and degree programs to choose from. If you are an undecided ๐Ÿคท major, attending a public college may give you more freedom to explore what fields you may want to study.

On the other hand, private colleges typically offer more specialized and focused programs. Because of its smaller size, students at private colleges also receive more personalized attention and mentorship in their academic fields, which may open the doors to opportunities like graduate school and guaranteed jobs after graduation ๐Ÿง‘โ€๐ŸŽ“.

In Conclusion

It is important to note that while there are several fundamental differences between public and private universities, they are also generalizations. It is important to research ๐Ÿ•ต๏ธ individual colleges, their learning environment, academic programs, and unique characteristics before deciding. These are also generalizations, and there may be a small public school with personalized classes or a large private school. ย The moral of this story is that you will have to spend some time looking at your options. ย A decision as big as selecting a college to enroll in deserves lots of thought. At the end of the day, it is your decision, and you are in control of what factors are the most important to you and your ideal college experience. Good luck ๐Ÿ˜!

Next, check out this college application checklist and these guides about creating college lists, acceptance profiles, and out-of-state colleges!


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Admissions Process
College Essay
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The Application
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