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Compare Public vs. Private College. Which one is better?

Choosing to attend a private or public university is a big one. Many students and their parents make that choice based solely upon cost. After all, a college education is a large financial investment, and there may be hefty student loans to pay back after graduating. So, yes, the price has to be a big factor in our decision, but if you cannot answer the question, “What is the difference between public and private colleges?” then you are not really ready to make your decision. Here are five factors of comparison that all students should consider.

Structural Difference

  • Public Universities

State universities are funded by the taxpayers of that state and student tuition and fees. Every university has an operating budget, which it must submit to an appointed Board of Governors, and that budget must be approved by the state legislature. The amount of tuition and fees charged must also be approved by the state government.

  • What is a Private University Structure?

­Private colleges and universities have been around longer than state institutions. They were initially founded by religious organizations, although most are not pretty secular. These institutions are not funded by the taxpayer and are therefore free to set their own policies and budgets without state approval. They usually have a Board of Directors or Governors that sets policy and tuition and fee rates. Private colleges are funded by student tuitions and fees, as well as by donors, most of whom are wealthy individuals who graduated from that college.


  • Public Universities

Because of their state funding, tuition and fees at public schools are much cheaper than a private school, as a rule. And states vary widely on those tuition amounts. Texas, for example, has very high funding for its state universities, so students get a big bargain. Generally, however, students can expect to pay from $7000 - $9000 a year.

The cost of living, whether in a dormitory or an apartment, will not vary much from that in private universities, nor will meal plans that are offered by the schools. The other factor that will remain comparable will be the costs of texts and supplies.

  • Private Colleges

Tuitions will be significantly higher in private schools and will generally range from $20,000 - $45,000 per year – the more prestigious the school, the higher the cost. The cost of living and texts, as mentioned, will not vary much from those of state schools, but those costs can be significant.

The one offsetting factor in tuition and fee costs is that private schools do have a lot of privately available financial aid. Some of their endowments from donors are earmarked for financial aid to students in need, and the school must give that money out as required each year. So, before you dump the idea of a private school, check out its financial aid programs.

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In looking at public university vs. private university sizes, the general rule is that public schools will have much larger student populations. This also means that class sizes will be larger and the personal attention is not great. Some campuses have up to 40,000 students or more, and at least at the general education level coursework, auditorium-style classes are the “rule.”

Student populations in private schools really vary. Small schools may have as few as 1800 students. Harvard, by contrast, has 27,000+. As a rule, however, class sizes in private schools are smaller, and there is more personal attention.

If you do well in very large and more impersonal schooling environments, then you will do very well in a public school. If you do not, however, you should consider a private college.


Because of their sheer size, public colleges tend to have more degree programs, so there are certainly more options when selecting a major field of study. And within a state system, some schools are known for their excellence in certain degree fields. If you select a state school, make sure you select one that is known for its department in your major.

Private schools have fewer degree programs, but many have an exceptional reputation in the degree programs they offer. If you intend to go the private school route, make sure that the degree program you are choosing has a department with a great reputation.

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Social Life

This is the final factor to consider. Big schools offer a great deal of diversity of population and a huge number of clubs and organizations to join. Most are also known for their “party weekends” especially when there is a “home” sporting event.

Private schools, with some exceptions, maybe less diverse and offer fewer opportunities for you to branch out and widen your social horizons. If there are fraternities on campus, there will be parties, for certain. But in general private schools tend to have less of a reputation for being “party” schools.

These, then are the factors to look at. Finding the right balance of cost, size, programs, and social life for you to be happy takes time and careful thought.

Posted by Chris M., September 25, 2015