Private vs. Public College: Which Would Suit Me Better?

By Patricia Gorden Neill - February 26th, 2013

The main difference between a private and a public college is the funding. States and governments fund public colleges, and private college take in their funding from tuition, fees and private donations, a great deal of the donations from alumni. For this reason, public colleges are usually quite a bit less expensive for students who live in state. Naturally, each type of college has its strengths and weaknesses, its pros and cons for various students.

When just beginning your college search, it is important not to limit the types of colleges you decide to consider. Even with the sticker shock you and your parents may feel looking at the price of private colleges, don’t let it put you off. Private colleges often come up with an excellent package of financial aid for students in need. This won’t be apparent up front, however. If you are attracted to a private college and think it may be the one for you, then you and your parents need to make an appointment with the financial aid office and see what kind of help you can get.

In general, private colleges tend to be smaller with fewer students. State colleges or universities can be huge with over 20,000 students. Students in private colleges experience smaller class sizes and more personal attention from their professors. Public colleges, on the other hand, have grand lecture halls set up for hundreds of students for their classes, usually taught by graduate student teaching assistants rather than a professor. When looking at colleges, keep the following pros and cons of each college type in mind.

Private Colleges

Pros

Smaller Class Size: Even in larger private colleges, class size is less than that of public colleges. Students can get to know their professors and the professors will know the student by name. If you’re the type of student who enjoys the teacher student relationship, then take a good look at private colleges.

Student Body Cohesion: Private colleges encourage students to be active in the college community. This can include extracurricular activities such as sports or student clubs, and college events. Both students and professors exhibit a strong loyalty to their college.

Prestige: Many people consider private colleges and universities as more prestigious then their public counterparts, and some private colleges have national name recognition. Professors at private colleges are considered by some to have greater reputations than those at public colleges, although this isn’t always the case.

Merit Scholarships: Private colleges give out many merit scholarships, especially for students requiring financial aid. While the overall cost is far higher at private than at public schools, private colleges hand out some pretty hefty financial aid to students it deems worthy. Sometimes financial aid packages cover full tuition, room and board. For this reason, don’t cross a private college off of your list until after you speak with the financial aid office.

Cons

Hard to Get In: Private colleges are more selective of the students it admits. If your grades were not so great in high school, then you may get into a private college.

Cost: Private colleges cost far more than public colleges, sometimes as much as 10 times more. A year at a public college can run, say, $8,000, while a private college could top at $40,000 for combined tuition, room and board and fees. You know to talk with the financial aid folks, right?

Less Diverse: While public colleges and universities attract students from many states and overseas, private colleges admit a more homogeneous student body. If you’re hoping to make friends with kids from India, China and France, you may not find it possible at a private college.

Transfer of Credits: Public schools have made it fairly easy to transfer credits from one public school to another. Private colleges, however, use different crediting methods and you may find you may find that private college credits don’t transfer easily, meaning you may have to take certain classes over again at a new school.

Public Colleges

Pros

Cost: Since governments subsidize public colleges, the cost for students who live in state is less than private colleges. Many public colleges also give financial aid to students, though not as generously as private colleges.

Programs: Public colleges can offer degrees in a variety of disciplines. There may be excellent liberal arts degree programs as well as dynamite electrical engineering degree programs.

Employment Opportunities: If you’re one of the many students who need to work during your college years, then a public college might suit you better. More on campus positions are available through work-study programs and you will have the flexibility as a student to seek off campus employment as well.

Bustling Atmosphere: Generally, public universities and colleges have greater diversity in their student bodies, with students from many different states and nations. Extracurricular activities abound and many public colleges have a very active sports scene.

Strong Academics: Public colleges attract teachers with strong academic backgrounds. While some people think highly of private colleges and attach more prestige to them, others hold equally positive views of public colleges. While most introductory courses are just that, higher level courses prove to be intellectually challenging for students, bringing out their best academic performance.

Ease of Admissions: Many students who aren’t quite top notch find it easier to get admitted to public colleges than to private colleges.

Cons

Class Availability: Some public colleges are quite large if not huge. Classes fill up quickly, and students might not get all the classes they want. Register for the classes you want quickly and you should be able to get the schedule you want.

Size of Classes: With large student bodies, classes in public colleges can be quite large, often a hundred or two students per class. Large lecture halls are often the venue for these classes. Some classes will be taught by adjunct professors or graduate student teaching assistants, and student contact with teachers and professors may be limited. However, if you need your professor’s attention to help you solve a problem, be sure and sign up for an appointment. You will need to work harder on fostering this relationship than you would at a private college.

Getting Lost in the Crowd: At huge state universities, some of the shyer students may feel isolated and alone in the crowd. If you’re more at home in a small town than a large city, a smaller public college would suit you better.

Less One on One: Professors at public colleges may have hundreds of students at a time. Bring yourself to their attention during class by speaking up during discussions. Make appointments with them. You may need to make more of an effort, but rest assured it can be done. Many professors enjoy getting to know their students.

About the Author

Patricia Gorden NeillPatricia Gorden Neill edited medical and scholarly journals for over 20 years in the ivy-covered halls of the University of Rochester. She is a freelance writer, often covering higher education and the concerns of college age students, and is regularly published on a variety of websites.