Public vs. Private Universities

When comparing public vs. private universities, you’ll find a few major differences between the two types of post-secondary institutions. From funding sources and cost of attendance to student body size and demographics, public and private universities couldn’t be more different. These two different college categories usually have very different degree options and social opportunities, too.

Type of Funding

There’s a reason that many public colleges are also called state universities. These post-secondary institutions are generally operated by the state and funded largely by state governments and local taxpayers. Many also receive private funds from donations, but these don’t represent their primary source of funding.

In contrast, private universities receive minimal funding from state or local governments. Instead, they tend to build large endowments and rely on private contributions, which often come from prestigious alumni. Private colleges also rely on students’ tuition to fund such operational costs as faculty and staff salaries and campus facilities.

Cost of Attendance

Since private college funding relies at least partly on tuition, it may not be surprising that tuition and the cost of attendance tends to be much higher at private institutions. It’s important to remember, though, that the cost of attendance can vary significantly from state to state and even among individual institutions. In addition, some private institutions may offer more generous scholarships, grants, and other financial aid, making attendance more affordable for a wide range of students.

Attending a state university tends to be much more affordable, as long as you’re a resident of the state where you’re planning to go to colleges. Most public universities have a two-tiered tuition structure, with lower rates for in-state students and higher rates for out-of-state students. Public universities use these lower tuition rates to incentivize local students to take advantage of this public resource, as in-state students and their families have already contributed to the university through state taxes.

Student Demographics

Since public universities usually offer lower tuition rates to local students, their student populations tend to be heavily skewed toward in-state students. This isn’t always the case, though, as some state universities offer in-state tuition rates to residents of nearby states or require out-of-state students to pay only slightly higher tuition rates.

While many private universities undoubtedly attract students from local towns and states, most welcome students from all across the nation or around the globe. As a result, private universities often have relatively diverse student bodies.

Campus and Student Body Size

Since public universities serve as invaluable resources for the state, they typically welcome much larger student bodies. Some of the largest state universities serve over 40,000 students, and the campuses are similarly large. Most public universities also offer large classes designed for hundreds of students, but higher-level courses are often smaller.

Private universities tend to be much smaller, and some have just a few hundred or a couple thousand students. While introductory courses at private universities may be large, the ratio of professors to students tends to be much smaller at these institutions. This often appeals to students seeking better access to professors and more individualized instruction.

Range of Degrees

Some public universities specialize in a few distinct subject areas, but most offer a comprehensive list of degrees and academic programs. Since state universities are designed to help local students gain post-secondary education, advance their careers, and increase their earning potential, most offer a wide range of degree options.

Some larger private universities offer a long list of academic programs, but most offer specialized focus areas. As a result, they often attract skilled and ambitious students seeking to concentrate on a particular academic niche. Some private universities also encourage students to design their own majors and academic programs, offering even more enhanced customization opportunities.

Social Opportunities

State colleges tend to have well-funded sports programs and a diverse range of activities to keep their large student bodies engaged. While opportunities for Greek life vary from college to college, many state universities also have vibrant fraternity and sorority options, creating more intimate communities.

Private universities may have more limited social options, but because of the innate sense of community at these colleges, students can often find their niches easily. As a private university student, you may find fewer big games to attend, but you may make closer connections with classmates and professors.

Whether you’re considering a state university near your hometown or a private college hundreds of miles away, you can get a great education and design the ideal college experience for yourself. To make sure you can pay for college, fill out the FAFSA® form and get the financial aid you need to succeed.