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Should I Go to a Public University or Private College?

As you start applying to colleges, you may wonder: Should I go to a public university or private college?

Ultimately, the choice is yours. But before you make this important decision, you should understand the key differences between public and private schools. Both types of colleges have their advantages, and we’ll discuss them in this article.

What Are Public Universities and Private Colleges and Universities?

Let’s start by defining public and private colleges and universities.

Public universities are institutions of higher learning funded by state governments. Top public universities include:

Search top public colleges here

As you can see, universities named University of [State] are public universities. The same is true for universities like Florida State University, Michigan State University, and so on. In fact, public universities are also called state universities.

On the other hand, private colleges or universities are institutions of higher learning funded by private donors and individuals who are not part of the government. Top private colleges include:

Search top private colleges here

The Ivy League universities and many other prestigious institutions are private universities. Now that you know what “public” and “private” mean, let’s explore the key differences.

Tuition Costs

State residents pay taxes that help fund their state’s public universities. As a result, the government covers part of the cost of attendance at public colleges. This is why tuition is cheaper for in-state residents than it is for out-of-state residents.

Private universities receive no funding from the government. Since all programs and operating costs are funded by private individuals, students must cover the full cost of attendance (without subsidies from the state).

The end result is that tuition at private universities is more expensive than tuition at public universities. The average cost of tuition and fees at private universities for first-year students is $25,914. At public universities, the average cost is $5,897 for state residents.

Remember that attending a public university out-of-state is more expensive. For out-of-state residents attending public universities, tuition and fees totaled $12,383 on average.

The bottom line is this: Public universities are significantly more affordable than private colleges and universities. However, don’t let that deter you from applying. Scholarships and other forms of financial aid can help cut costs.

Class Sizes

Public universities typically have a larger student body than private colleges. The largest colleges in the United States are public universities, some with an enrollment of over 60,000 students.

Of course, this translates to larger class sizes at public universities. Especially in entry-level courses, classes at public universities may take place in an auditorium with up to 200 students.

On average, private colleges and universities have smaller class sizes. This allows for more discussion and closer relationships with professors.

Ask yourself:

  • Can I learn independently, or is it important for me to work closely with professors?
  • Do I learn better in discussion-based courses?
  • Will I enjoy large class sizes, or will I find them overwhelming?


Since public universities serve so many students, they tend to have a wider range of degree offerings. You can find just about any program or degree at a public university.

Private colleges and universities have fewer students and therefore fewer choices. However, many private colleges offer the opportunity to customize your program of study by working closely with advisers.

In addition, public universities often have better facilities due to government funding. This includes innovative research facilities and massive libraries. If you’re interested in scientific research, public universities offer fantastic resources. Private colleges, on the other hand, may give you the chance to work on research with a professor in the field.

Ask yourself:

  • Is my major available at most private colleges?
  • Do I want the ability to work closely with advisers and customize my program of study?
  • What is more important to me: cutting-edge facilities or collaboration with faculty?


Not surprisingly, public universities are mostly filled with in-state students. Private colleges, on the other hand, attract students from across the country and around the world.

If a geographically diverse student body appeals to you, you might be interested in attending a private college.

Campus Life

Public universities tend to have more spirited, energetic campuses. They may have a huge variety of extracurricular activities, a thriving Greek life, and especially competitive sports teams (although this is true of some private colleges as well). Public universities are more likely to have a “party school” reputation.

Private colleges are smaller and quieter, although they strive to offer varied activities as well. Because elite private colleges and universities often attract more scholarly students, the focus is typically more on academics than on sports, partying, and Greek life.

Ask yourself:

  • Do I want the “college experience” of a vibrant, social campus with a wide variety of activities?
  • Will a “party school” atmosphere be distracting to me?
  • Do I want to be around a lot of people all the time, or do I prefer a quieter, more personal setting?

Student Outcomes

When it comes to graduating on time from a four-year college (note: within six years is considered “on time,”), private universities are leading the way. About 51.3% of private university students graduate on time, in comparison to 45.4% of students at public universities.

How about life after college? Degrees from top private universities can be more marketable because of their reputation. These universities also tend to have highly successful alumni networks, which can be valuable for graduates.

Additionally, according to Nerdwallet, recent public university graduates report earning 80% of the salary brought home by their private college peers. However, your field of study has a more significant impact on your salary than what school you attend.

PayScale reports that Return on Investment is significantly higher for public universities than it is for private universities. Basically, this means that the huge tuition gap does not lead to an equally large salary gap.

Ask yourself:

  • Is significantly higher tuition worth it to me (and my family)?
  • Will an increased chance of graduating on time, a more marketable degree, and a potentially higher salary pay off?

The Bottom Line

When it comes to deciding between public and private colleges, there’s a lot to consider. Let’s look at a quick summary.

Public Universities:

  • Significantly more affordable
  • Larger class sizes
  • Lack of close relationships with professors and advisers (at least until your studies become more specialized)
  • Less geographically diverse
  • More degree programs, extracurricular activities, and cutting-edge facilities
  • More vibrant campus environment

Private Colleges:

  • More expensive
  • Smaller class sizes
  • Classes more discussion-based
  • Closer relationships with professors and advisers
  • More geographically diverse
  • Fewer degree programs and activities
  • Degree programs may be more customizable
  • Students more likely to graduate on time
  • May lead to a more marketable degree and higher salary

The final decision comes down to your personal preferences. Would you like a larger or smaller college? Is it important that you’re able to work closely with professors and advisers? Do you need a large selection of degree programs and activities? Is the steep price of private education worth it to you?

Also keep in mind that the differences outlined in this article are generalizations. You can find a smaller public university or a larger private college or university. You can also do your research and find a private university that offers the exact major you’re interested in, or a public university that gives you the option to customize your program of study.

Whether you choose to attend a public or private college, there’s a school out there that’s just right for you.

Find the right college for you

Author: Jason Patel

Jason Patel is the founder of Transizion, a college counseling and career services company that provides mentorship and consulting on college applications, college essays, resumes, cover letters, interviews, and finding jobs and internships. Jason’s work has been cited in The Washington Post, BBC, NBC News, Forbes, Fast Company, Bustle, Inc., Fox Business, and other great outlets. Transizion donates a portion of profits to underserved students and veterans in of college prep and career development assistance.