There are many misconceptions surrounding the good and bad of public and private colleges. Perhaps the most common of these myths is that public education comparatively lacks in quality. The truth is, with hard work and good planning, attending a public school can be just as beneficial as attending a private institution. However, there are some key things to know about the difference between public and private colleges you should know while conducting your search. Read on to find out what’s the difference between public and private colleges, and their respective pros and cons. But first, let’s begin with some definitions.
What Is a Private College?
The major difference between public and private colleges is funding. Private colleges are institutions that typically operate as an educational nonprofit organization. As such, it doesn’t receive its main funding from a state government, but instead, overwhelmingly from tuitions and private endowments.
In general, private universities have smaller class sizes as well as smaller student populations when compared to public colleges. Private schools can also have specific affiliations, such as with certain religious churches and sects; or private colleges can be ones with more focused educational fields, such as colleges for studying music (for example, the Juilliard School) or technology (for example, the California Institute of Technology — Caltech). While not universal, it is also common for private colleges to offer a smaller selection of majors compared to public universities, but private schools may also provide more specialized academic and degree programs.
What Is a Public College?
Once again, the key difference between public and private colleges is that public colleges are funded by the government, while private colleges rely on tuition, fees, and gifts to raise money. In return, the average cost of tuition at public colleges tends to be cheaper than tuition at private colleges. For instance, in California, the average cost of tuition of all four-year private nonprofit colleges (excluding private colleges that are primarily associate’s degree-awarding) is $32,199. In contrast, the average cost of tuition of all four-year public colleges for in-state enrollees is $9,319 and out-of-state is $26,415; this is based on data from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) College Navigator for the academic year 2021-2022.
Typically, public colleges and universities are larger than private colleges and have larger student populations, as well as class sizes. What’s more, public colleges and universities usually have a larger selection of majors versus private schools, covering an array of liberal arts programs and more specialized programs.
With the basic definitions and the general difference between private and public college out of the way, let’s take a closer look at the specifics of private colleges vs public colleges, as well as their respective pros and cons.
Public vs Private Colleges: Tuition Costs
Tuition for both public and private colleges and universities is rising and has been on an unceasing march for several decades now. For example, according to NCES, over the last 30 years, the average cost of tuition and required fees at four-year public colleges has increase by 159.3%: From $3,605 in the 1989-1990 academic year, up to $9,349 in the 2019-2020 academic year — and these figures are in constant 2019-2020 dollars, meaning that the growth is not due to inflation. Meanwhile, over the same period, the cost of tuition and required fees at four-year private colleges have risen by 92.7%: From $17,010 in 1989-1990, to $32,769 in 2019-2020. Although the cost of tuition at public colleges and universities has grown faster than private schools, in general, tuition at public colleges tends to be less expensive than private schools. But there is one caveat here.
Attending a public college or university that is outside of your home state will usually raise the cost of tuition versus a student attending that same college who resides in the same state as the college. For instance, while the average cost of tuition and required fees for four-year public colleges is $9,349 in 2019-2020, that figure is for in-state attendees. The corresponding figure for out-of-state tuition and fees is $27,023 for the academic year 2019-2020, according to the NCES. Though this is almost $18,000 more than in-state public college tuition, it is still less than the average private school cost of tuition and fees of $32,769 in 2019-2020.
Tuition Costs for Colleges that are Public
Since public schools receive public funding, public colleges and universities tend to have lower tuition rates. Even their out-of-state tuition costs beat many comparable private college tuition costs. What’s more, public colleges and universities also offer scholarships and financial aid, so it’s critical that you determine what you may qualify for financially before making that final decision.
Here’s a table of the average tuition costs for colleges that are public institutions by state. All 50 states plus the District of Columbia are ranked from 1 (the most expensive) to 51 (least expensive). The rankings are based on taking the average of in-state tuition and out-of-state tuition:
Academic Year 2019-2020 (Rank 1 = most expensive)
|State||Most Expensive College||2021-2022: In-state tuition||2021-2022: Out-of-state tuition|
|Alaska||Alaska Pacific University||$20,760||$20,760|
|Arizona||Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University-Prescott||$38,966||$38,966|
|California||University of Southern California||$61,503||$61,503|
|Delaware||University of Delaware||$15,020||$36,880|
|District of Columbia||Georgetown University||$59,957||$59,957|
|Florida||University of Miami||$54,760||$54,760|
|Hawaii||Hawaii Pacific University||$30,020||$30,020|
|Idaho||Northwest Nazarene University||$34,390||$34,390|
|Illinois||University of Chicago||$62,241||$62,241|
|Indiana||University of Notre Dame||$58,843||$58,843|
|Louisiana||Tulane University of Louisiana||$60,814||$60,814|
|Maryland||Johns Hopkins University||$58,720||$58,720|
|Massachusetts||MGH Institute of Health Professions||$83,176||$83,176|
|Missouri||Washington University in St Louis||$58,866||$58,866|
|Nevada||Roseman University of Health Sciences||$36,297||$36,297|
|New Hampshire||Dartmouth College||$60,870||$60,870|
|New Jersey||Stevens Institute of Technology||$56,920||$56,920|
|New Mexico||St. John's College||$35,710||$35,710|
|New York||Jewish Theological Seminary of America||$66,064||$66,064|
|North Carolina||Duke University||$60,244||$60,244|
|North Dakota||University of Jamestown||$23,498||$23,498|
|Oklahoma||University of Tulsa||$45,673||$45,673|
|Pennsylvania||Franklin and Marshall College||$63,406||$63,406|
|Rhode Island||Brown University||$62,304||$62,304|
|South Carolina||Furman University||$53,372||$53,372|
|South Dakota||Augustana University||$35,914||$35,914|
|Texas||Southern Methodist University||$60,236||$60,236|
|Virginia||Washington and Lee University||$59,380||$59,380|
|West Virginia||West Virginia Wesleyan College||$32,612||$32,612|
|Wyoming||University of Wyoming||$6,277||$20,827|
Public colleges in Vermont, on average, have the most expensive tuition and fees: $17,0833 for in-state and $41,057 for out-of-state. Meanwhile, Wyoming public colleges and universities boast the cheapest costs of tuition and fees, at $4,747 for in-state and $14,803 for out-of-state; D.C., though, actually is even cheaper, but it’s not a state.
Tuition Costs for Colleges that are Private
While the majority of private colleges and universities tend to have higher sticker prices, it’s important to remember that they often offer more in terms of financial aid and scholarships. So, this con isn’t always as clear cut as you may think. Take the sticker price with a grain of salt and, before deciding against a college or university solely on tuition, find out how much you’d actually be paying after qualifying for scholarships and aid.
Below you’ll find another table displaying the average tuition costs for colleges that are private institutions in every state:
Academic Year 2019-2020 (Rank 1 = most expensive)
|Rank||State||Private Nonprofit 4-Year Tuition and Required Fees|
|3||District of Columbia||$44,134|
Massachusetts takes the cake when it comes to having the most expensive private school tuition and fees, at $47,980 for the academic year 2019-2020. This shouldn’t come as much of a surprise when you recall that institutions like Harvard University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Tufts University, to name a few, all of which have very costly tuition. Meanwhile, Idaho boasts the least expensive four-year private nonprofit cost of tuition and fees, at $6,429.
Public vs Private Colleges: Campus Life
Besides looking just at costs of tuition, another major factor to consider when choosing a public vs private college is the campus life of each type. Naturally, campus life at an elite, small private liberal arts college like Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, which has an undergraduate population of a little over 1,400, will be quite different from the campus life at a public state school like Penn State University, which has an undergraduate population of almost 75,000.
Let’s go over the difference between public and private colleges when it comes to campus life.
Campus Life at Public Colleges and Universities
Public colleges and universities tend to have a lot more activities going on day-to-day. The biggest reasons for this are easy to understand: In general, they have more available students, a larger number of available facilities and organizations to join, and typically larger and more prominent sports teams and fanbases. Public schools will offer a vast array of different clubs and opportunities for student involvement, not to mention fraternities and sororities. Another common trait of public colleges is that every major often has a corresponding club.
In the end, public colleges and universities tend to have a significant number of activities and events on a daily basis. This makes big public colleges great for people that flourish on high-energy, camaraderie, and a variety of options to spend your free time with. Public universities are an ideal choice for students looking to be a part of a huge student body that has aspects that are social and athletic. In sum, public college may be a good fit for you if you don’t mind larger size lecture courses, love supporting the college’s athletic teams, and desire a broad variety of social options and students to associate with.
Campus Life at Private Colleges and Universities
When it comes to campus life, the main difference between private vs public college is that private schools generally tend to have a smaller number of students, and teams and clubs to choose from. Due to their larger focus on academic specialization, private colleges and universities put less emphasis on extracurriculars, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t still plenty of diverse options and activities to partake in.
Commonly at private schools, the college will allow students to create their own organizations tailored to specific interests, be they cultural, political, academic, religious, hobby-based, and much more. When it comes to academics, private colleges and universities usually offer smaller student-to-instructor ratios, meaning that students have easier access to and attention of teachers. According to the NCES, the average student-to-instructor ratio at private nonprofit degree-granting institutions is 10.1 students per 1 instructor. By contrast, at public degree-granting institutions, that ratio is 15.1 students per 1 teacher. Thus, if you want or need more attention and catering to your classes, then a private school could be more appealing to you.
Generally, but by no means universally, private colleges tend to have fewer activities and clubs compared to public colleges. However, that doesn’t automatically mean that they don’t have the options you’re looking for. What’s more, most private colleges will enable students with similar interests to create their own social groups, so that limitation can easily be resolved.
Another important difference between public and private colleges is the campus setting. Many large public four-year colleges tend to be in small cities or even rural settings. For example, the largest university in Pennsylvania — Penn State — is in the small town simply named State College, Pennsylvania, in the rural center of the state; the largest public university in Illinois — University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign — is in the small city of Champaign; and the same goes for the largest public university in Indiana — Purdue University — located in the small city of West Lafayette. Of course, this characteristic of public school campus setting isn’t universally true: Massachusetts’s largest public university — Boston University — is located in Boston, and thus is in a large urban setting. Still, if you want a campus that’s in the middle of the hustle and bustle of an urban landscape, private nonprofit universities tend to be the ones that are found in large cities. Take for example all colleges in Minnesota; when organized by having a campus setting that is “City: Large” (NCES designation), only two four-year public colleges fall into this category: Metropolitan State University and University of Minnesota-Twin Cities.
Public vs Private Colleges: Education Quality
In terms of the quality of education of a public vs private school, there’s no straightforward, objective answer as to which is better. If you’re a lazy student, less interested in academics than partying, then the difference in the quality of education at a private vs public school may not be that great. However, there are some objective measures and characteristics that can shed some light on the education quality of private colleges vs public colleges.
Quality of Education at Public Colleges and Universities
Public institutions offer students a wide variety of study options at competitive tuition rates, whether they’re in-state or out-of-state attendees. Since these schools receive government funding and have enough size to provide a diverse array of fields of study, you’ll often get the most value per dollar attending a public college. Additionally, colleges denoted as research universities — universities that are committed to research as a central part of its mission — overwhelmingly tend to be public colleges. For example, according to the 2021 Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education report, there are 107 research universities that are public universities compared to only 39 private universities that have this designation.
Large public colleges and universities often have several subordinate schools, offering a diverse range of study fields. And these various subordinate schools can be for both undergraduate and graduate students. Private colleges also have this feature, though not as often as public institutions. But perhaps the one most telling difference between public and private colleges is their respective graduation rates. According to the NCES, the average graduation rate after four years at a public college is 40.7%, Compare that to a four-year graduation rate of 56.4% at private nonprofit colleges.
Quality of Education at Private Colleges and Universities
In addition to detailed specialization, the biggest reason to choose a private college or university for most students is reputation. If you can get into a school that accepts very few students, which is common with private institutions, then you can attain a certain cultural and educational prestige that can help on resumes after graduation. What’s more, many private schools rank among the leading academic institutions nationally. Hence, these schools often attract the most talented staff and research opportunities.
Analyzing education quality in terms of graduation rates, an obvious pattern emerges. After identifying the college with the highest graduation rate in each of the 50 states plus D.C., in 38 states the institution with the highest graduation rate is a private college or university. By contrast, in only 13 states is the institution with the highest graduation rate a public college or university. On top of that, the average graduation rate for the 38 states with private schools being the ones with the top graduation rate is 86%. For the 13 states where public schools have the highest graduation rate, the overall average graduation rate is 76%.
Public vs Private Colleges: Diversity
Diversity has increasingly become important criteria for prospective students when they decide on applying to a college. When it comes to student diversity at private colleges vs public colleges, there are some notable differences. According to the NCES, at four-year public colleges, 56.5% of enrolled students are white, while at four-year private colleges that figure is 59.3%. However, this doesn’t mean public colleges and universities are necessarily more diverse ethnically simply because they have a lower percentage of white students. See the table below:
Type of Institution and Percentage of Race/Ethnicity of Student, Fall 2019
|School and Ethnicity||2019|
|American Indian/Alaska Native||0.6%|
|Two or more races||4.3%|
|American Indian/Alaska Native||0.5%|
|Two or more races||3.9%|
As you can see from the data table, though four-year private colleges have a higher percentage of white students than public colleges, private schools have a higher percentage of black students (15.7%) versus only 11.3% for public schools. Private colleges and universities also have a higher percentage of Pacific Islander students (0.4%) than public colleges and universities (0.2%), which may seem small, but it’s actually equivalent to double the amount. On the other hand, public colleges have a higher percentage of Hispanic students (19.1%) compared to private colleges (13.4%). Public schools also boast a higher percentage of Asian students (7.9%) than the corresponding percentage at private schools (6.8%).
Thus, while diversity varies at public vs private colleges, both types of institutions have increased their diversity over the years and are close to converging in their ethnic makeup. A bigger area of diversity between private schools and public schools lies in geographic diversity. In terms of the geographic diversity of a private vs public college, private institutions also tend to attract students from out of state more than public institutions. A major factor in this is the affordable in-state tuition public colleges and universities offer to students who reside in their state. The cost of tuition for an out-of-state attendee at a public school can sometimes be as high, or nearly as high, as the tuition for a private school, thus deterring more out-of-state students from applying.
As far as academic programs and degrees go, private colleges and universities tend to limit their scope of expertise. Thus, private schools may offer few programs compared to public schools, but they’ll be more intensive in quality.
The Bottom Line on the Pros and Cons of College: Public vs Private Colleges
As with so many things in life, there’s no single, straightforward best answer for whether you should go to a public vs private college. The choice comes down to whichever type of school is “better” in terms of your needs, wants, goals, and plans for after college. There is definitely a difference between public and private colleges across many criteria, but those divergences can either be a pro or con depending on what you want to get out of your college experience.
In the end, it is best to determine what your main priorities are for college — such as, whether you put a premium on social life, or academic rigor, or broad academic choices, or diversity of culture, or overall cost. Think about what fields of study you may want to major in, as some colleges offer notably excellent academic programs depending on the degree you want to pursue. Think about how much you care about class sizes and one-on-one interactions with teachers, as public colleges tend to have fewer instructors per student. Next, investigate all schools that you’re interested in, both public and private, to see which ones best align with what you’re desiring in your college experience. Probably the best move is to take into consideration both options, then delve into more specific factors, instead of ruling out one type of school over the other.