Public vs. Private Colleges: What’s The Difference?

Trying to figure out what college to attend is difficult, but when you throw in this whole public vs. private distinction into the mix, then things really start to get confusing.

In this post, I’ll review what the difference is between public and private schools so that you can decide which one would be the best fit for you.

Public Colleges

Public colleges are mostly run by state funding.  If you decide to attend a public college in the state that you live in, it’s likely that tuition costs will be a lot less than private colleges.  As a resident, not only do you get a break on tuition costs, but it is also usually easier to get accepted.  In some cases, even as a non-resident, tuition costs can be a lot less at a public college.

A lot of states have a “flagship” or main public university.  These campuses are normally huge.  For example, let’s take the state of Wisconsin…the flagship university in this state would be the University of Wisconsin–Madison, which has a total enrollment of over 40,000 students.  However, there are also other public colleges in Wisconsin, like the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, which has a total enrollment of over 27,000 students. Typically the state’s flagship university draws students from all over, including overseas, whereas the smaller public universities tend to draw more applicants who live in the state or close by.  Usually the flagship university is harder to get admitted to then the other public schools.

So, what does all of this mean? The largest advantage of attending a public school over a private school is price.  Some other advantages include a wide variety of extracurricular activities, sports teams, and housing or campus living options.

Private Colleges

Private colleges, conversely, are mostly run by tuition costs, gifts, and donations from alumni and supporters.  Generally, private colleges are more expensive than public colleges, but they also typically offer the best financial aid packages.  So, using the state of Wisconsin for our example again, a well-known private institution in this state would be Marquette University.  Marquette has a total enrollment of over 11,000 students.

So, what does all this mean? Private colleges are best known for the amount of personal attention that is given to each student.  Class sizes are usually a lot smaller, which allows the student to get one-on-one attention with professors.  Most professors will know thier students on a first name basis.  Public colleges tend to be much larger and therefore students are more anonymous to professors and other students. On the flip side, private colleges tend to have a limited number of extracurricular activities and sports team.  Also, they generally have less housing options.

How Do I Decide?

When you are trying to decide between public and private schools, it’s probably best that you visit both types of colleges.  During your initial college selection process, your best bet is to keep your list rather broad.  Aside from the public vs. private characteristic, research schools that have what you’re looking for academically and socially.

Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Do they offer the major I’m interested in?
  • How do I feel about the location?
  • Are the class sizes too big or too small?
  • What type of extracurricular activities do they offer?
  • How do I feel about the dorm rooms?
  • Will it be expensive to travel back and forth from home?
  • Do I like the campus?
  • How much is tuition?  Is it too expensive?

The best way to get a true feel for the college is to do a campus tour.  Ultimately, your decision will be based on which university has the right “feel” and the best way to figure this out is to visit the school when classes are in session.

Also, for more information on choosing the right college, you should check out my post “Colleges That Change Lives.”

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Lauren Anderson is a certified school counselor who's passionate about helping students all over the world successfully transition from high school to college! After spending 6 years as a business professional, she obtained her Master’s degree in School Counseling and now spends her spare time helping students.

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