Private vs. Public College: The Pros & Cons of Both

By Kayla McCormack · March 12, 2024 · 6 minute read

We’re here to help! First and foremost, SoFi Learn strives to be a beneficial resource to you as you navigate your financial journey. Read more We develop content that covers a variety of financial topics. Sometimes, that content may include information about products, features, or services that SoFi does not provide. We aim to break down complicated concepts, loop you in on the latest trends, and keep you up-to-date on the stuff you can use to help get your money right. Read less

Private vs. Public College: The Pros & Cons of Both

When it comes to selecting a college, one big consideration is whether to attend a private vs. public college. A key difference between private and public colleges lies in how they are funded and operated. Public colleges get much of their funding from local and state governments, while private ones are largely sustained with tuition, fees, and donations.

Going the public route is the most common scenario. In the fall of 2023, approximately 13.5 million students attended public institutions while 5.1 million were enrolled in private institutions, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Students who are debating between private and public colleges may want to consider factors like cost, quality of education, campus life, and how they plan to pay for college. Read on for more information on each of these categories.

Public vs Private Colleges: Factors to Consider

Choosing a college is a personal decision, so it’s important to factor in individual goals and needs as you compare private vs. public colleges. In addition to the factors below, things like what you hope to study and how close you’d like to be to home will influence how you choose a college.

Now, let’s dig into more about potential advantages and drawbacks of public vs private colleges.

The Cost of Public vs Private Colleges

Many students wonder if they should choose a college based on price. One reason that attending public colleges is the more popular route is that they are often less expensive than private institutions. Public institutions are often especially affordable for in-state students, who typically get a break on tuition.

According to research by the College Board, the average cost of tuition and fees at a public college with in-state tuition during the 2023-2024 school year was $11,260, and $29,150 for out-of-state students. At private colleges, the average tuition and fees was $41,540.

That said, private colleges and universities may also offer scholarships, fellowships, and other kinds of need- or merit-based financial aid. And, even some top-tier universities have virtually done away with tuition for students whose families have certain levels of family income. So, high-achieving students might actually get a better or comparable deal at a private institution depending on their family’s financial situation.

Recommended: The Average Cost of College Tuition in 2024

Differences in Educational Quality

According to U.S. News, the highest ranking public schools in the country include UCLA, UC Berkeley, the University of Virginia, the University of Michigan Ann Arbor, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. At these schools and many others, students can get a top-notch education at a fair price if they qualify for in-state tuition.

However, many public schools have enormous student populations, which can mean large class sizes, difficulty getting into your most desired classes, and less personal attention from faculty and administrators. For example, the University of Central Florida has just over 59,000 undergraduates, resulting in a student-to-faculty ratio of 29 to 1.

By comparison, Pomona College in Southern California has a population of just under 1,800 students (fall 2022) and a student-to-faculty ratio of just eight students to one faculty member, according to U.S. News. Beyond class size, some private institutions are often able to deliver a world-class education. In fact, every one of the top 10 highest-ranking schools in the country are all private schools.

Specific Majors or Programs of Study Available

Private colleges, particularly smaller liberal arts colleges, may have fewer majors or programs available to students than larger public universities. As you are evaluating schools, consider the field(s) of study you are most interested in and understand the options available at the schools you are considering.

On a related note, students interested in pursuing research opportunities may have a better chance of conducting research at a larger university. However, private universities are likely conducting research, too. It’s best to consider the programs you are specifically interested in and ask an admissions counselor what research opportunities are available to undergraduates in that field or major.

Recommended: A Guide to Choosing the Right College Major

Campus Life

For some students, the large size of many public institutions is a factor in the pro column. This environment means there are a great variety of potential groups to join, activities to participate in, or classmates to become friends with.

A large school means many different classes and majors to choose from. If this appeals to you, it can expand your network and make your college experience much more interesting. Private schools are also likely to have clubs and activities available for students, too, though it may be on a smaller scale.

Both public and private schools can be a great choice for students interested in athletics. Public schools are most likely to have a wide variety of active sports teams, and most of the top-ranking colleges for student athletes are public.

However, many private universities have successful teams, as well. If it’s important to you, or you’re a student athlete yourself, you could check out the strength of specific sports programs at the colleges you’re considering.

Repay your way. Find the monthly
payment & rate that fits your budget.

Financing Your Education

Some students and their families cover tuition costs (or a portion of costs) with savings, but there are a variety of other sources of finances to help students pay for college. As mentioned, public universities generally have a less expensive sticker price than private schools, but private schools may offer more financial aid to students. So, don’t rule out a private school on cost alone.

To apply for federal student aid, the first step is filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®). Colleges will use this information to help determine how much aid, and what types, a student qualifies for. Federal aid includes things like Pell Grants for low-income students, work-study, and federal student loans. Both private and public schools may offer scholarships to students, as well.

Federal Student Loans

Federal loan options include Direct Subsidized Loans, Direct Unsubsidized Loans, and Direct PLUS Loans.

For the 2023-2024 school year, the interest rate on Direct Subsidized or Unsubsidized loans for undergraduates is 5.50%, the rate on Direct Unsubsidized loans for graduate and professional students is 7.05%, and the rate on Direct PLUS loans for graduate students, professional students, and parents is 8.05%. The interest rates on federal student loans are fixed and are set annually by Congress.

Private Student Loans

For students who still need additional funding, a variety of lenders offer private student loans. Private student loans typically take the borrower’s credit history, and that of any cosigner, into consideration. And while federal student loan interest rates are always fixed, private student loan interest rates can be fixed or variable.

Keep in mind, though, that private student loans do not offer the same benefits as federal student loans, such as income-driven repayment plans and student loan forgiveness. If possible, it’s wise to exhaust all federal aid options before seeking private student loans.

The Takeaway

Both public and private colleges and universities can offer an excellent education to students. Differences to consider when deciding between a private or public school include the cost, the programs of study available to students, the quality of education, campus life, and sources of funding for school. Depending on individual preferences and circumstances, students may find a public school better suits their needs or vice versa.

If you’ve exhausted all federal student aid options, no-fee private student loans from SoFi can help you pay for school. The online application process is easy, and you can see rates and terms in just minutes. Repayment plans are flexible, so you can find an option that works for your financial plan and budget.

Cover up to 100% of school-certified costs including tuition, books, supplies, room and board, and transportation with a private student loan from SoFi.

SoFi Private Student Loans
Please borrow responsibly. SoFi Private Student Loans are not a substitute for federal loans, grants, and work-study programs. You should exhaust all your federal student aid options before you consider any private loans, including ours. Read our FAQs. SoFi Private Student Loans are subject to program terms and restrictions, and applicants must meet SoFi’s eligibility and underwriting requirements. See for more information. To view payment examples, click here. SoFi reserves the right to modify eligibility criteria at any time. This information is subject to change.

Financial Tips & Strategies: The tips provided on this website are of a general nature and do not take into account your specific objectives, financial situation, and needs. You should always consider their appropriateness given your own circumstances.

Non affiliation: SoFi isn’t affiliated with any of the companies highlighted in this article.

Third-Party Brand Mentions: No brands, products, or companies mentioned are affiliated with SoFi, nor do they endorse or sponsor this article. Third-party trademarks referenced herein are property of their respective owners.


All your finances.
All in one app.

SoFi QR code, Download now, scan this with your phone’s camera

All your finances.
All in one app.

App Store rating

SoFi iOS App, Download on the App Store
SoFi Android App, Get it on Google Play

TLS 1.2 Encrypted
Equal Housing Lender