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 2020, approximately 14.6 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.
Factors to Consider When Evaluating Public vs Private Colleges
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, among other personal preferences, will influence how you choose a college.
Now, let’s dig into more about potential advantages and drawbacks of each choice. Even though a few colleges and universities are mentioned by name—shout out to them—we’re not affiliated or endorsed by any of the institutions. Just FYI. Alright, let’s talk about the differences between public and private colleges.
The Cost of Public vs Private Colleges
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 US News, during the 2020-2021 school year, the average cost of tuition and fees at a public college with in-state tuition was $11,171, and $26,809 for out-of-state students. At private colleges, the avast of tuition and fees was $41,411.
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.
Differences in Educational Quality
The highest ranking public schools in the country include UCLA, UC Berkeley, the University of Virginia, the University of Michigan (Ann Arbor), and UC Santa Barbara. At these schools and many others, students can get a top-notch education at a relative steal 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 30 to 1.
By comparison, Pomona College in Southern California has a population of around 1,500 students and a student-to-faculty ratio of just seven students to one faculty member. Beyond class size, some private institutions are often able to deliver a world-class education; every one of the top 10 highest-ranking schools in the country are all private schools.
Note that there can be a big difference between private non-profit schools and for-profit schools. Most of the prestigious private universities people are familiar with, like Harvard and Princeton, are non-profits. Students who attend for-profit colleges have lower graduation rates than their non-profit counterparts.
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. Public universities may have many labs and teams conducting research. Private universities may have less funding but are likely also conducting research, so undergraduate research opportunities may be possible too. Again, 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.
For some students, the large size of many public institutions is another 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, 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.
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Financing Your Education
Some students and their families cover tuition costs (or a portion of costs) with savings, 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.
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.
For students who still need additional funding, a variety of lenders offer private educational 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. (Fixed means the rate will stay the same over the course of the loan, while variable rates can change based on market fluctuations.) If possible, it’s wise to exhaust all federal aid options before seeking private student loans.
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, 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.
After exhausting all federal loan and aid options, students may consider borrowing a private student loan to pay for college. Private student loans can be used to pay for both private and public college. SoFi’s private student loans have absolutely no origination or late fees. The applicant (and potentially their cosigner) can fill the application out entirely online. And when it comes time to repay the private student loans, SoFi offers flexible repayment options and exclusive member benefits.
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