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Public University vs Private College: Which One Is Right For You?

This post is from a student, parent, or professional contributor. The opinions expressed by the author are their own and do not necessarily reflect the positions, viewpoints, or policies of Niche.

A tan building. Above it is a bright blue sky. In front of it are palm trees.

In the U.S. alone, there are over 5,300 colleges and universities, ranging from public to private, small to large, urban to rural, religious to non-sectarian, and many more variations. With all of these options, you’re bound to find your perfect fit, but that doesn’t mean the process of narrowing down colleges is going to be easy.

While there’s much to consider in the grand scheme of the college search process, we’ll focus on public versus private colleges and universities in this article. Every college falls into one of these categories, and once you learn a little more about each, you’ll be able to continue narrowing down your schools more specifically.

Class Size

This is one of the biggest factors that students look at when determining what schools to apply to. Class size can be important in determining how well you’ll perform in your classes, what grades you’ll get, and how comfortable you’ll feel at the university as a whole. 

Generally, public universities are on the larger side, with some having tens of thousands of students. Public universities are known for having large lecture halls, giving you the opportunity to meet many people often from different majors and colleges within the university. This can help you form new perspectives and ideas that you might not have previously considered.

However, large universities and class sizes aren’t for everyone: you’ll get less individualized attention from the professor and might have difficulty getting help when you’re confused about a topic.

If you’re not the biggest fan of large classes, look into some smaller, private universities. You can find many private schools with small class sizes, often with fewer than 25 students. In these small classes, the professors will get to know your name and you as a person, and you’ll feel a real sense of community.

None of that is to say that all private universities are small. In fact, schools like Brigham Young University and New York University (both private) have almost 30,000 students each, so make sure you double check each individual school’s student population.

Cost of Tuition

One of the biggest factors that sets public and private universities apart is cost. Your state’s public university is funded by resident’s tax dollars and will most likely be significantly cheaper when compared to private colleges that receive no government funding.

For the 2020-2021 school year, the average price of tuition and fees for private colleges was almost $38,000. For public universities, it was just under $11,000. By saving over $25,000 a year, you might have more wiggle room to afford things like study abroad programs in addition to other expenses, not to mention significantly reduced student loans after graduation.

However, it’s important to note that if you’re looking to go to a public university not in your state, it will cost you more than if you were a local resident. You may not have access to some of the same scholarships as your in-state peers, not to mention lower acceptance rates, especially if the school receives many out-of-state applicants (i.e. the University of California (UC) system).

Despite the higher cost of private colleges, they often have more robust scholarship and grant programs for students based on many forms of academic merit or financial need. 

For some who really luck-out and work hard in the scholarship department, it can actually be less expensive to attend a private school, so don’t write it off. 

My best piece of advice is to apply to a variety of private and public schools you’re interested in and analyze your financial aid packages after your decisions roll in. 

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Ability to Switch Majors

Your major often determines what kind of classes you’ll be taking in college and which jobs you’re eligible for after graduation. Many students decide what they want to study when they are applying to college, but once they actually start taking classes, they realize they don’t like what they initially set out to study and switch majors. 

Generally, as long as you aren’t a second semester sophomore or beyond, you’re free to change your major around as many times as you want (within reason, of course) without affecting your graduation date. 

You will likely have fewer options when it comes to deciding on or switching your major at a private school, simply because fewer students means fewer options. You might end up having to transfer schools, which is an entirely different process.

If you’re a particularly indecisive person who hasn’t made up their mind about what they want to study, it may not the best choice to go to a private school. 

Instead, opt for a larger, public university where you’ll be saving money while you have access to more areas of study to decide on what it is that excites you. If you find a certain class particularly interesting, meet with an academic advisor to see what major will help you further explore that path. Odds are, your state’s flagship public school has 100+ majors, so you’re bound to find a match.

If you’re set on what you want to study, private schools can offer specific programs tailored to your personal educational goals, helping you build your own major by working closely with your academic and career advisor. 

Extracurricular Activities

Extracurricular activities are part of the fun of college! It’s your time to explore by picking up a new hobby, being a member of a club you’re passionate about, volunteering in your surrounding community, or meeting new friends during an intramural sports game. 

At a small, private school, you’ll be able to become invested in a few clubs or activities. You also might have an easier time gaining a leadership position and managing other members. 

At a large, public university, you’ll get to dip your toes into a lot of extracurricular activities and explore many more activities that might not be available at a smaller school. 

When it comes to more academic-based extracurricular activities like research, the lab facilities are often top-notch at public schools due to government funding. You might also have the opportunity to work on high-profile research projects that are affiliated with important local and federal agencies. 

At private schools, you’ll get more one-on-one attention with faculty and might get to pursue more individual projects that are better suited to your ultimate career goals and interests. This is great because you might get to play a bigger role in the research project or study, gaining valuable experience in a short amount of time.

Either way, research as an undergraduate looks outstanding for any student (especially if you’re looking to apply to competitive graduate programs like medical schools). 

Campus Life

Student life is central to any college campus. It’s where you’ll be living for the next four years, so you’ll want it to be the perfect mix of fun, energetic, and welcoming without being too distracting. 

Public universities are known for having bustling Greek life, competitive sports programs, and many more on-campus activities. If you’re an extrovert who loves to meet new people and try new things, odds are you’ll find just what you’re looking for at a public university.  

If you don’t love to put yourself out there as much or are looking for a calmer college experience, private colleges may be a better bet. They’re also less likely to have a “party school” reputation, which is more suitable for students who want to focus more on the academic and professional experience. 

No matter if the school is public or private, campus life extends beyond the campus into the surrounding community. Check out what things are in the area, whether it’s internship opportunities or a late-night ramen shop. No matter how amazing campus life is, sometimes you need a break from it.


Whichever college you go to, remember that the student determines their success, not the school. As long as you put in the work and do your best, the rest will follow. 

You won’t love everything about your school because that’s not realistic. Do your research, explore all your options, talk it over with people, but at the end of the day, go with your gut. It’ll lead you exactly where you’re supposed to be.

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Author: Norah Baldwin

Norah is a high school senior from Boston, Massachusetts, and will major in Nursing next year at college. She currently works as a lifeguard and swim instructor for kids, and volunteers with the American Cancer Society in addition to blogging for Niche.