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Public vs Private University: What's the Difference?

Learn about the main differences between public and private universities that you should consider when choosing a school.

May 24, 2024
  • Education
Public vs Private University: What's the Difference?

✨5-second summary

  • Public universities are funded by the government and generally have lower tuition. They are larger, more flexible with their requirements, and offer more programs and research opportunities.
  • Private universities receive funding through higher tuition, private investments, and donations. They have a higher graduation rate, a more individualized approach to education due to the smaller class sizes, and usually a more geographically diverse community.

When deciding on higher education, the choice between public and private universities is significant and can impact your academic journey and experience. While both types of institutions have a lot to offer, they also have important distinctions.

In this article, we'll explain what's the difference between public and private universities and how it may affect which school is right for you.

Public vs private university: What's the difference?

1. Funding and tuition

The main difference between public and private universities is the source of funding and, as a result, the tuition fees.

A public university is usually owned and funded by the government, so the state basically covers a percentage of the costs. That's why they can afford to have lower tuition, especially for in-state students. In some countries, public universities can even provide education for free depending on your exam scores.

On the other hand, private universities rely on tuition, private investments, and sometimes donations. This means that students have to pay the full cost of their studies, thus making the tuition much higher on average. For-profit universities generally charge more than non-profit for 2 reasons:

However, the specific amount varies from one college to another. You can find that a particular private university has low or no tuition fees, or that in your country there's not much difference in the costs of education between public and private universities.

2. Financial aid and scholarships

Both public and private universities offer scholarships, grants, and other forms of funding for your studies. However, private schools often provide more substantial financial aid due to their larger funds. So, while private institutions may be more expensive initially, sometimes financial aid options can actually make them more affordable than public schools.

According to the 2023 NACUBO Tuition Discounting study, private non-profit universities reported a 52% tuition discount for all undergraduates and 56% for first-time first-year students studying full-time in the 2023-2024 academic year. This is the record high rate and the numbers have been rising in recent years.

3. Admissions and reputation

Private universities often have a more extensive and strict list of prerequisites and it doesn't get any easier once you're accepted – you have to maintain high grades and fulfill other criteria to be able to graduate. This makes sense: the tuition is usually higher, so they should offer excellent value for the price, provide you with a high-quality education and diploma, and uphold a good reputation.

Public universities typically have higher acceptance rates and more flexible requirements. That being said, a school being public doesn't inherently mean that it offers a lower quality of education – 63% of universities in the top 30 of QS World University Rankings are public. So the quality and prestige really depend on what a specific university has to offer, rather than just its public or private status.

Public vs private university: class sizes and diversity

4. Class sizes and diversity

Although private universities are smaller, the tuition for in-state and out-of-state students is very similar if not the exact same, so the chances that you meet many people from various locations are high. Public universities, in contrast, have higher acceptance rates and affordable tuition costs, so they can attract students from many different demographic backgrounds but usually from the same state.

Public universities are often bigger and tend to have more students enrolling every year, so classes are larger, especially for foundational courses. The latest data from NCES shows that there are 16 students for each faculty member in public universities, while the ratio for private non-profit schools is 10:1. This may influence the time and attention professors can dedicate to each student.

5. Academic programs and specializations

Since public schools enroll more students, they usually have more degree offerings than private ones to cover as many specializations as possible and allow each student to find something for themselves. Private universities can do that as well but more often than not they might be specialized institutes or smaller institutions offering specialized courses or a limited range of majors.

For example, Oxford University is a public institution that offers over 400 undergraduate and graduate degrees. Meanwhile, Stanford University, a private institution, has a total of around 200 programs.

6. Research opportunities and facilities

Government funding allows public universities to have better research facilities and resources. They often operate under various governmental structures, from healthcare and education to the military, and provide many opportunities for students to delve into research and develop their ideas.

However, since private institutions have lower student-to-faculty ratios, it's easier to have individual support and supervision from professors. And if a school specializes in research or you enroll in a very research-focused program, then you might have a card blanche on whatever project you want to take and all the necessary equipment.

7. Graduation rate and outcomes

According to the College Completion report from the NSC Research Center, the graduation rate for public 4-year institutions is around 72%, and for 2-year institutions – 45%. Private non-profit universities have the highest graduation rate – 80%, and in private for-profit schools, 49% of students reach graduation.

As for life after university, there is no conclusive research that would suggest that one degree is better than the other in terms of salary prospects. A study on annual salary differences between public and private school attendees found that the type of university doesn't play a major role in earnings:

"Private schools are not the source of wage increases but are instead attracting students who would have succeeded regardless of the type of college they chose."

Summary

PointsPublic universitiesPrivate universities
Funding and tuitionFunded by the government and have lower tuitionGet funding through higher tuition and private investments
Financial aid and scholarshipsLess opportunities, most funding options only cover tuition feesMore substantial financial aid
Admissions and reputationThe status doesn't really affect the rankings; more flexible admission requirementsA more extensive and strict list of prerequisites
Class sizes and diversityBigger classes with students from different demographic backgroundsSmaller classes with more geographical diversity
Academic programs and specializationsMore degree offerings Limited range of majors
Research opportunities and facilitiesBetter research facilities and resourcesIndividual support and supervision
Graduation rateFor public 4-year institutions is around 72%, and for 2-year institutions – 45%The highest graduation rate is for non-profit schools – 80%; 49% for for-profit ones
Public vs private university: Which one is right for you?

Public vs private university: Which one is right for you?

When choosing where you want to study, you should consider several factors:

  • Your financial situation and funding options
  • Your learning style
  • What you expect to get from your university experience
  • Which locations you're willing to consider
  • Whether or not you have a specific program or project in mind

If getting an education on a budget is your priority, then generally a public university is the right fit for you. However, make sure to research all available scholarships and financial aid opportunities – you can get a degree at a private university for even cheaper.

If you really need mentorship and individual support from your professors, then smaller private colleges could be a better option. And if you have a more independent learning style, a public school could provide all the necessary materials and a large community to support you.

Since public schools tend to have a wider variety of programs, they could be the right choice if you're not yet sure about the exact topic you'd like to study. It's easier to transfer to a different department within the same university, and you usually have a number of specializations to choose your focus from later in your program.

In conclusion, it's important to do your research, weigh your options, and have an open mind: don't cut your list of universities just based on their funding sources. Whether public or private, there's a school out there that is just right for you!

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Keystone Team

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The Keystone Team is comprised of experienced educators and advisors dedicated to providing valuable resources and advice to students all over the world.