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Private vs. Public Colleges

By the OnlineU team | Updated 10/2/2023

"Public" and "private" are among the first descriptors that schools apply to themselves, from elementary schools through graduate colleges and universities. It's an important distinction, because administrators run these institutions differently. But what do public and private colleges signify, and how are they different? We answer these questions and give you some factors to consider to help you decide which type you might prefer to attend.

By the OnlineU team | Updated 10/2/2023

"Public" and "private" are among the first descriptors that schools apply to themselves, from elementary schools through graduate colleges and universities. It's an important distinction, because administrators run these institutions differently. But what do public and private colleges signify, and how are they different? We answer these questions and give you some factors to consider to help you decide which type you might prefer to attend.

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What Is a Private College?

The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) is an authoritative source for college data in the U.S., so the center's definition of "private institution" is helpful:

An institution that is controlled by an individual or agency other than a state, a subdivision of a state, or the federal government, which is usually supported primarily by other than public funds, and the operation of whose program rests with other than publicly elected or appointed officials.

Private schools are split between nonprofit and for-profit institutions. As the names suggest, nonprofit colleges don't seek profits beyond funding their operations, whereas for-profit schools run like businesses to pay their stakeholders.

Common Characteristics of a Private College

The U.S. hosts 4,064 private colleges. There is wide variation in how private institutions operate, but they tend to share the characteristics listed below:

Freedom of affiliation
Public colleges can't be affiliated with a religious denomination because doing so would violate the separation of church and state established in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. But many private schools operate as religious institutions, which may appeal to prospective students from a particular religion or denomination.

Freedom of curriculum
Curriculum is sometimes related to a private school's religious affiliation. These institutions can offer any degree program they wish, whereas public colleges can't provide theology education because of the church-state clause. 

More expensive than public colleges
On average, four-year private nonprofit schools cost four times as much as public colleges. For-profit institutions tend to cost about twice as much as public schools. Note that these numbers compare in-state tuition rates for public students, which are much more affordable than rates for out-of-state students — private schools charge the same tuition to all students regardless of their state of residency.

More funding from tuition and investments than taxes
Private colleges receive much more of their revenue from tuition, fees, and investments than public schools do. In fact, for-profit colleges cover 93% of expenses using tuition and fees; nonprofit private schools only get 34% from the same source.

Smaller class sizes
Private colleges tend to be smaller than public schools, so courses usually have fewer enrollees.

What Is a Public College?

According to the NCES, a public school or institution is one "controlled and operated by publicly elected or appointed officials and deriving its primary support from public funds." These public funds are mostly state and local tax revenue that the state legislature appropriates to the institution. For this reason, these colleges are sometimes called "state schools."

Common Characteristics of a Public College

As with private schools, most public colleges share a few features:

Government oversight
A state's department of higher education ensures that public colleges spend their budgets in line with legislative appropriations. They also watch that schools adhere to the state's postsecondary education standards. Nonprofit schools may have some degree of federal oversight if they accept federal financial aid, but the state oversight is less intrusive.

Larger class sizes
Most states host multiple public colleges, and the largest can have very high attendance numbers. For this reason, popular courses may feature dozens or hundreds of students.

More affordable than private colleges
State residents fund public colleges through their taxes, so these schools let residents attend at a reduced cost called the in-state tuition rate. 

Nonprofit status
All public colleges are nonprofit, so any extra money they earn must be funneled back into academic programs and operating costs. 

Secular status
As government-run institutions, public schools separate education from religious practice and identity.

What Is the Difference Between a Private and Public College?

It's easy to see how private and public colleges differ when we compare some of their common characteristics:

Funding is the primary difference. Instead relying on revenue from tuition and fees, private schools receive far less public money than public schools.

Faith-based or secular status is another difference. Private institutions don't require a religious affiliation, but they can hold one, unlike public colleges.

Affordability is an unofficial but very real difference. Public schools are usually the cheapest options for in-state residents, followed by for-profit colleges and then private nonprofit schools. However, a school's endowment and generosity with financial aid may complicate the total cost.

To learn about the difference between colleges and universities, explore our article, "College vs. University." 

Private vs. Public College: Which Should You Choose?

Each type of college has pros and cons, so the answer is as individual as you are. Below, we list a few of these benefits and drawbacks for your consideration. You can use these guidelines as starting points when deciding which college to go to.

Here are some pros and cons of private colleges:

Potential Benefits

  • Employers may see a private school degree as more prestigious, as long as it's from a nonprofit college. Private nonprofit institutions tend to have the best public reputations — after all, the Ivy League and many other so-called "elite institutions" are private. 

  • You might qualify for a generous financial aid package from a private college. Nonprofit private schools tend to have large endowments they can use to fund need-based and merit-based scholarships for eligible students, so upfront tuition price shouldn't be your only consideration — it's worth learning how much financial aid a more expensive school might offer.

  • Smaller class sizes usually mean more individual attention from professors.

Potential Drawbacks

  • You might need to pay for the prestige of a private, nonprofit education. If you can't receive much financial aid, you or your family are likely to owe much more than if you'd enrolled in another type of school. 

  • For-profit colleges lack the high standing of nonprofit colleges and also tend to offer less financial aid to prospective students. This may be why students at for-profit colleges accrue more debt and have a higher likelihood of defaulting on student loans.

And below are some pros and cons of public colleges:

Potential Benefits

  • Public institutions tend to be the most affordable options for higher education. You might even be able to receive in-state tuition if you enroll in an online degree from another state; many public schools offer this incentive because it's a way to enroll more students without adding physical infrastructure. 

  • Public colleges tend to have the widest range of degree options in order to appeal to the broadest spectrum of students. You can try out a few interesting subjects if you haven't decided on your education or career path.

Potential Drawbacks

  • You need to be an in-state resident to receive the lowest tuition rates if you attend in person. 

  • Larger class sizes tend to mean less personal attention and interaction with faculty, along with less experienced teacher assistants teaching some material. 

FAQs About the Differences Between Private and Public Colleges

Is It Better To Go to a Private or Public College?

The answer might differ for different individuals, but Optimal's research shows that there are more public than private online colleges that (1) cost relatively little upfront and (2) lead to good career outcomes — relatively high salaries and low unemployment — for graduates.

But the opposite is true for schools offering primarily online programs: Private online colleges tend to provide the best career outcomes to online students.

Is Private College Harder Than Public?

The most exclusive colleges tend to be private, nonprofit institutions. These schools are likely to contain the most difficult degree programs because they're intended for students with a proven high level of academic performance. But any given school can prove relatively easy or difficult based on a range of factors, such as your aptitude for the subject matter, the quality of instruction, and the accessibility of extra resources and services. 

Is It Worth It To Go to a Private College?

It might be worthwhile to attend a private college if you can secure enough grant, scholarship, or work-study aid to substantially reduce the cost of your education. If not, it may be prohibitively hard to pay off your student loan debt and start saving more for retirement.

Bottom Line

Private colleges receive most of their funding through tuition, fees, and investments. Public colleges rely much more heavily on government money collected from taxation. For this reason, private schools tend to be more expensive for students. But there are pros and cons to both types of institutions, so you should consider the factors that matter most to you before deciding whether to enroll in a public or private college. 


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