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Public versus Private Colleges – What’s the Difference? 

Choosing the right college for you is a big decision. There are a multitude of options to consider when deciding on furthering your education, which is why Niche has tried to sort through those options and make it easier for students to decide on a school. One of the choices facing college hopefuls is whether to attend a public or private college. What’s the difference? Is one better than the other? Let’s take a look at a breakdown of each. 


The biggest difference between public and private schools is from where they receive funding. Public schools are funded in part by the government. Private schools do not receive government funding. This is one of the reasons public colleges typically have lower tuition rates. However, private schools are more likely to have access to grants and endowments and can provide financial aid and scholarship money to students. 


Public universities tend to be bigger than private colleges. They have bigger campuses, larger class sizes, and an overall larger student body population. With student body numbers climbing  into the tens of thousands, it’s not unusual to have over 100 students in some classes at public universities. As a result of the larger class sizes, students may have a tougher time getting to know their professors. They may receive help or one-on-one time from a teaching assistant. Public schools tend to have a less intimate setting than some private campuses. However, the big-school-feel may be right for students who plan to join a fraternity or sorority, who like having restaurants on campus, or who need public transportation to get to a job or to go shopping. Many private colleges boast small class sizes, easy access to the professors, and a close-knit sense of community among the student body. 

Program Offerings

Because public universities tend to be larger, they can offer more diverse programs. A public school may be the right choice for an incoming freshman with an undecided major who has many interests and wants to take a variety of classes. However, some private schools can be known for their specific program offerings. Private schools could employ a renowned professor in the field, therefore making that program a desirable and competitive offering at the school. 

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Religious Affiliation

Because public schools receive government funding, by law, they can have no official religious affiliation. Private schools, however, are not bound by the separation of church and state and can have religious affiliations. Typically, private colleges do not require students to practice a certain religion in order to gain admission to the college.


Both public and private schools have athletic programs. We can look at athletics two ways. Nearly all professional athletes who attended college come from Division 1 schools. These are big colleges with huge athletic budgets, state-of-the-art training facilities, and top coaches. For a serious athlete, this may be desirable. It would also be desirable for the sports fanatic to have this at their school. However, the chances of making and playing for a D1 team are small. For an athlete who doesn’t plan to go the professional route and simply wants to continue to play the sports they love, a smaller public or private team would be just fine.

So which one is better?

When it comes to the debate of public versus private, the winner will be different for each student. The best thing students can do when searching for the right college is to keep an open mind. Decide what matters to you. If you’re interested in a prestigious music program, it shouldn’t be concerning if your college of choice received a C rating in athletics from Niche. Which college will help you achieve your goals? With the myriad of options in front of college prospects, deciding between a public or private institution is just one factor among many.

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Author: Anne DeGerolamo

Anne DeGerolamo is a chocoholic, bookworm, and mom of two. Because of her immense love of grammar, by day, she works as a middle school language arts teacher. She earned a degree in writing and a master's in education. She lives in Pittsburgh, PA with her family. Anne's words to live by are, "Be kind. Eat chocolate."