Public vs. Private College: How to Choose the Right One for You

Renee Layberry
May 4, 2021

Choosing the right college requires thoughtful consideration. Whether you have your heart set on one school or have a long list of candidates, you want to make this decision carefully so you end up where you truly belong.   Your analysis should consider a variety of factors, including the school’s location, academic programs, and available majors, and tuition costs. Comparing the differences between public and private schools will help you determine which one is a better fit for you.   Differences between public and private universities abound. Understanding these allows you to make your college decision confidently. After all, you're likely going to spend the next four years there, so it should be a school where you can thrive.  

What defines a public college vs a private college?

Funding is the primary difference between public and private schools.   Public schools receive most funding from the state, while private schools receive funding through student tuition and endowments. As a result, tuition at private schools is typically higher compared to in-state tuition at public schools.   Public schools, due in part to their lower tuition costs, have larger enrollments and more program offerings than their private counterparts. With that, however, often comes larger class sizes and a less personalized experience than private colleges.   Read on to explore the key differences between public and private schools to collect the information you need to make an informed choice.  

Student body

Public universities and private colleges both have diverse student populations, but public schools typically have a larger student body. So, consider school enrollment when evaluating and comparing these schools.    According to the National Center for Education Statistics, some of the nation’s largest public universities, like Texas A&M University and the University of Central Florida, have more than 65,000 in-person students. In comparison, private Ivy League schools have much smaller student bodies. Princeton University, for example, has about 8,000 students.   Student enrollment may be a factor in your choice of college. Do you want to spend the next four years at a sprawling campus with 50,000 or more fellow students? Or do you see yourself at a smaller campus that offers a more intimate setting with a stronger sense of community?  

Class size

The size of the student body impacts class sizes and teacher-to-student ratios. These play a role in how you learn and engage with your professors and fellow students. Many students thrive in learning environments with fewer students, taking advantage of more individualized instruction.   Typically, you’re going to see better student-to-teacher ratios at private schools due to fewer overall students. Princeton, for instance, has a 5:1 student-to-faculty ratio; UCF's ratio is closer to 30:1. Private schools, in fact, often tout these low ratios when marketing to high school seniors, offering a more personalized college experience where you can get to know your professors.   large empty college auditorium Photo by @hasangokdag via Twenty20
While you’ll certainly encounter large general education courses at a public university, not every class you take will be alongside several hundred students. Some general education courses like introductory English are typically smaller classes, which allows you to connect more easily with your professor and fellow students alike.    Plus, when you begin taking classes within your major, you’ll often find that class size is reduced for more personalized learning and discussion. In other words, while you might not start out with small class sizes at a public school, you will likely have smaller classes eventually.  

Academic offerings

Consider, too, what types of academic programs your potential schools offer. These vary between public and private schools. Usually, you’ll find more majors available at a public university due to its size. Public schools typically offer a wide range of programs, with separate colleges and departments within the academic system. As a result, you’ll have many majors from which to choose.   Smaller private schools are likely going to have fewer colleges and departments and, in turn, fewer program choices which may limit your choice of major.    Researching private schools, then, is especially important so that you can ensure the school offers majors that interest you. For example, if you want to major in engineering, a private liberal arts school won’t be a good fit.  


College isn’t cheap, and how you’re going to afford tuition is often a deciding factor in what school you attend. Carefully considering each school’s tuition and fees and their impact on your budget is essential.   Generally, you’re going to pay more to attend a private school when compared to public options. The NCES shows annual tuition costs for a student living on campus at a public university at $24,900 for the 2018-2019 academic year. By comparison, a student living on campus and attending a private nonprofit school paid $51,900.   Photo by Brooke Cagle

Scholarship opportunities and financing options

Students can offset tuition costs at both public and private universities in several ways. Scholarships can reduce the cost of tuition regardless of your school choice. Private schools often have hefty endowments that may provide scholarships for eligible students, helping to reduce the generally much higher tuition costs.   Public schools may also have a scholarship program, especially for students in need. A federal work-study job at a public school can also help you work your way through college. So, it’s important to consider your tuition financing options when choosing between public and private schools.  

Religious affiliation

If you’re seeking a school with a religious affiliation, then private schools might be a better fit for your needs. You can find private schools that are associated with a variety of religious denominations. While you may prefer to select one that aligns with your personal religious beliefs, you should note that there aren’t usually any religious requirements to apply or attend. However, keep in mind that religion will certainly be visible in the campus culture, so decide whether that’s something that you’re seeking when choosing a school.  


College brings with it a wealth of opportunities, and different schools offer different opportunities for students. Consider how you envision your college experience so that you can select a school that has the opportunities you desire.   Public schools, due to their size, may offer more extracurricular options than private ones, so compare schools based on their offerings. Similarly, think about your research and academic opportunities on campus. Public schools often offer robust research programs, which may give you the chance to work alongside a professor to conduct research.   In some cases, a private school’s smaller size works to its advantage. Due to a smaller student population, professors may be able to work personally with students and mentor them. These relationships can help students build their portfolios and resumes as they prepare for life after college.   students throwing their graduation caps in the air after they graduate Photo by @simplehours via Twenty20


Attending a state public university doesn’t necessarily carry the same prestige that attending an exclusive private school does. However, choosing a school based on its reputation alone may be short-sighted. While having an Ivy League school on your resume can undoubtedly bode well for future job prospects, you should choose between public and private schools based on your unique interests, academic strengths, and financial situation.   If the state public university has a program better suited to your professional interests, select a school based on fit, not on prestige.  

Comparing public and private schools - at a glance

There’s no right answer when it comes to choosing between a public or private school. Some students want to stay close to home and attend a local state school with their high school buddies – at a fraction of the cost of private schools. Other students crave a more intimate experience, one where the student body and class sizes are smaller, and campus life easier to participate in.    Considering your unique needs, along with these pros and cons, can help you weigh each potential school thoughtfully.  

Public school pros and cons

Public schools have their advantages and disadvantages, including the following.   Pros:
  • Lower tuition costs, especially for in-state students.
  • Expansive opportunities, from programs and majors to extracurricular activities.
  • Diverse student body.
  • Large class sizes, especially in general education courses.
  • Less prestige, depending on the school.
  • Less personal attention and community spirit on a busy campus with tens of thousands of students.

Private school pros and cons

Consider these pros and cons when assessing your private school options.   Pros:
  • Low student-teacher ratios and smaller class sizes.
  • Scholarship opportunities.
  • Easier to connect with faculty and fellow students and to become involved in campus life.
  • High tuition costs.
  • Fewer academic departments and major options.
  • Fewer extracurricular opportunities.
  As you assess what type of university is right for you, consider these pros and cons. Then, make a list of those factors that are especially important to you, whether that’s the available majors, cost of tuition, or campus culture. When you do, you’ll be guided to the right school for your needs, which will result in four successful years on campus.