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What’s the Difference Between a Private and Public University?

You’ve likely heard about colleges and universities being categorized as public or private, but you may be wondering what exactly that means. While they’re both institutes of higher learning, there are a variety of differences between private vs public college.

See also: What is the difference between college and university?

Private vs public college

Here’s a rundown of the key differences between public and private institutions:

Funding sources

The defining difference between private and public schools is the way in which they’re funded. Public universities receive their funds primarily from state governments. Meanwhile, private universities are supported mainly by their own endowment funds and students’ tuition fees. Funding sources have a big impact on cost of attendance and the availability of financial aid, which we’ll discuss below. 

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Cost of attendance

Cost of attendance is a big factor when discussing public and private schools. Since public schools are largely funded by the government, they can afford to charge lower tuition rates to students. By contrast, private schools rely heavily on student tuition in order to keep operating. This means that tuition costs are usually much higher at private schools. According to recent data from the National Center for Education Statistics, the average annual cost of attendance is estimated to be $17,797 at public institutions and $36,138 at private nonprofit institutions. 

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Financial aid availability 

Don’t let that sticker price scare you away from private schools! Although private institutions are more costly to attend, they typically offer more substantial financial aid than public institutions. Due to their large endowment funds, private schools usually have more money available to award grants and scholarships. According to the National Association of College and University Business Officers, private institutions extended a record average 48% tuition discount to undergraduates for the 2019-20 school year. So while private institutions may appear more expensive initially, sometimes financial aid packages can actually make them more affordable than public schools. 

Also see: How to get in-state tuition as an out-of-state student

Campus Culture

Public institutions are typically much bigger than private ones. Public schools often have tens of thousands of students, while it’s common for private institutions to have just a few thousand undergrads. Because of their larger student bodies, public institutions tend to have more vibrant social scenes. This means there’s a greater variety of clubs, campus activities, and parties. However, that’s not to say private schools don’t have thriving campus cultures. They’re usually just smaller in scale and offer a tighter, more close-knit community. 

Learn more: Top questions to ask on a college campus visit

Class Size

As far as learning environments, at public schools it’s not uncommon to have over 200 students in one lecture hall. On the other hand, private universities tend to cap class sizes at around 30 students. This allows for more personalized instruction. However, keep in mind that class size varies depending on the institution. It’s certainly possible to have small classes at public schools and large classes at private schools. 

Academic Advising 

Students can typically expect a more personalized academic advising experience at private universities. Because private universities are usually smaller than public ones, they can devote more time and effort to advising each individual student. This includes helping students figure out their majors, scheduling their classes, and anything else that may assist in navigating the college experience. Due to the sheer size of some public universities, there simply aren’t enough resources to hold every student’s hand through this process. Sure, there are helpful resources if you need them. Just don’t expect the individualized attention you’ll receive at private schools. 

Related: Scholarships360’s free scholarship search tool

Degree Offerings 

As far as degree offerings, private institutions tend to offer fewer academic majors than public institutions. This is particularly true when it comes to liberal arts colleges. Take Davidson College, for instance. This small liberal arts college in North Carolina offers 31 majors. This is a standard range of common majors that you’ll find at most universities, including computer science, philosophy, and public health. By contrast, a large public institution like Ohio State University offers over 200 majors, from meat science to fashion and retail studies.

Research Opportunities 

Public schools tend to have more resources available for students to perform research. For instance, the University of California at Los Angeles is one of the top research powerhouses in the nation, boasting of more than 350 research labs, centers, and institutes. At a large public school like UCLA, there are plenty of opportunities for students to leverage their school’s resources to carry out academic research. While students can certainly conduct research at private universities as well, most private institutions simply can’t match the research efforts of public schools. 

Related: Everything you need to know about graduate assistantships

Student Diversity

Demographics also differ between public and private universities. Due to their higher acceptance rates and more affordable tuition costs, public schools tend to be more demographically diverse. This means that public institutions generally have higher percentages of non-white students. By contrast, private schools usually have a less diverse racial makeup. However, since private colleges charge the same tuition rates regardless of state residency, they tend to attract students from diverse geographic locations.


Public schools usually place a larger emphasis on athletics. Take the Big 10 schools, for instance. This is a group of (mostly) public universities that are known for their competitive athletic programs and tremendous school spirit. Additionally, the vast majority of Division I sports teams come from public universities. By contrast, private universities tend to have less prominent athletic programs. 

Related: All about D1, D2, and D3 athletics

Prestige & Acceptance Rate 

Whether it’s fair or not, private universities are generally perceived as more prestigious than public universities. Private schools usually have more selective admissions criteria and lower acceptance rates. Additionally, private schools tend to place higher in college rankings than public schools. However, don’t make the mistake of thinking you can’t obtain a top-notch education at a public university. Some of the most highly regarded institutions in the U.S. are public, including the University of Michigan, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and the University of California, Berkeley. The bottom line is that there are a lot of factors to consider when choosing a college, so try not to get too caught up on prestige. 

Also see: What are the Public Ivies?

Advice From a College Access Professional

Finding a financially safe school is one of the most important decisions a high school senior can make. For many students, an in-state public institution is a great bet for a safe financial school because you will qualify for in-state tuition. When I worked in school counseling the University of Connecticut was a popular choice for our students, because our high school was in Connecticut so students received discounted, in-state tuition. 

Some public colleges also offer tuition discounts to out-of-state students through tuition reciprocity. In Connecticut, in-state students were also eligible to receive tuition discounts at out-of-state colleges like the University of Maine.  
Will Geiger

Scholarships360 Co-Founder

Former Associate Director of College Counseling at Hopkins School

Private vs. public college: Key differences

  • Public universities receive their primary funding from the federal government, whereas private universities receive money from tuition, endowment funds, and alumni donations
  • Private universities typically have a higher sticker price but often offer higher financial aid
  • Most public universities have a much larger student body and larger class sizes than private universities
  • Public universities typically offer more fields of study and research opportunities
  • The student body is typically more diverse at public universities
  • Public schools typically have more competitive athletics, and the student body holds them in greater importance

Is a private or public school right for me?

As you can tell, there’s a variety of characteristics that differentiate private vs public college. Knowing this, it can be a tough decision to choose which type of institution you’d like to attend. You may like certain aspects of both types of schools. Say you want the extensive degree offerings of a public university, but like the idea of a small campus. Ultimately, you’ll have to decide which factors are most important to you and choose the  school that best fits your needs. Once you start to narrow down your search, try comparing your options using the College Scorecard.

Read more: How to choose a college