When choosing the college you’ll attend, there’s an enormous number of compromises and decisions that need to be made. West coast vs. east coast, big vs. small, urban vs. surburban – the list goes on. Perhaps one of the most challenging and nuanced of these decisions is the choice between attending a public or a private university. There are myriad advantages and disadvantages for both, along with many stereotypes, both good and bad, that contribute to public perception of each. We’ve broken down some common misconceptions and highlighted the differences between public and private universities to help you make the decision that’s best for you.


The first conclusion students and families tend to jump to when comparing public and private universities is cost. Because public universities receive government funding, the assumption is that they’re always cheaper than private universities. While attending a public university certainly can be cheaper than a private one, whether that’s true in any given case depends on a number of factors. Firstly, and most obviously, it depends on which schools are being compared. Some public schools’ tuition is as high as $17,000. On the other hand, some private schools also boast tuition as low as $5000; a select few are entirely free. Clearly, the conception of private schools as universally more expensive than their government-funded counterparts is simply false.


That being said, on average, the average cost of attending a public school is generally lower than a private school. This difference is especially pronounced when considering in-state vs. out of state tuition. Students who reside in the school’s state (i.e. a California resident attending UC Berkeley) are charged less in tuition fees than students from out of state or out of country. Unfortunately, this doesn’t always mean attending public school is always cheap; even in the in-state cost of attendance at some public schools exceeds $35,000 annually.


The cheaper tuition comes at a price, however; public schools often have fewer resources to assign for financial aid purposes, which can sometimes make a public school with a lower sticker price actually costlier to attend. Aid packages at public schools may be similar to those offered at smaller, less wealthy private schools, but they can’t match the full-ride packages that well-endowed schools like the Ivy League provide. Aid at public schools tends to be assigned to low-income students, often leaving middle-class students with nowhere to turn. However, recent efforts have been made at many universities to expand financial aid offerings for the middle class. In addition, nearly all public schools offer merit scholarships for exemplary academic or athletic performance. If you don’t feel like paying any tuition at all, the service academies, such as West Point or the Naval Academy, offer top-tier education on a full scholarship under the condition that graduates complete a term of service with the United States military.


For most private schools, cost of attendance is fixed regardless of state or country of residence. There are some private colleges that offer free tuition, most famously the Cooper Union (until its decision to begin charging students tuition in recent years). However, oftentimes the cost of attending private schools is made much more manageable through generous financial aid or merit scholarships. At some schools, students are not expected to pay at all if their family falls into a certain income bracket. However, if you don’t qualify for financial aid, financing your education at a private school can be tricky; the annual cost of attendance exceeds $70,000 at some private universities.


Another commonly cited difference between public and private universities is size. Public universities are usually much larger than private ones; the largest private university, New York University, has a total enrollment of about 20,000 (including graduate schools) while the largest public university, Arizona State University, has over 60,000.


The size of a university has a significant impact on student life. At a large public university, your class will be composed of thousands of students, many of which you’ll never meet, while at a smaller private school, smaller class sizes (usually ranging from 500 – 3000 students) mean you are likely to cross paths with many, if not most of your classmates. Large class sizes allow you to constantly meet new people, but the anonymity of being one in a class of over 8,000 is difficult for some students.


At a private school, smaller classes sometimes mean each student gets more individual attention from faculty or administration, but this isn’t necessarily true. Small discussion classes are often delegated to TAs or grad students can’t afford the degree of attention a student may expect, and enormous lecture classes for introductory classes like economics or physics often have hundreds of students. Furthermore, the inevitability of meeting most of your classmates at some point can make for a less dynamic social environment than one may find at a large public university.


Concerns about impacted majors and enormous class sizes trouble many potential public school students. It can be more difficult to get into required classes and graduate on time at public schools, especially if a student’s intended major is impacted (the number of students in a certain major exceeds the resources available to the department). Additionally, introductory classes often have hundreds of students and forging close bonds with professors can be difficult as a result. However, going to a public school doesn’t mean you’re doomed to graduate in 7 years. While placement into classes can be more of an ordeal and the student to faculty ratio is usually higher than at a private school, graduating on time is certainly not impossible.


Due to smaller class sizes, graduating on time is more common at private schools. An important factor to note, however, is that as the academic caliber of a school increases, so does the on-time graduation rate. Students at top-ranked universities are usually ambitious enough to take rigorous course loads to graduate on time and drop out at a lower rate than lower-ranked universities, regardless of whether the universities in question are public or private.


Amenities available to students are another supposed difference between public and private schools, although this difference becomes increasingly negligible every year. While it is commonly assumed that private universities, by nature of their private funding, are able to offer nicer amenities (dining, housing, student activities, etc.) to their students, that is no longer universally true. While ultra-rich universities the likes of Harvard or Yale do tend to spend more money on their students than the average public school, the difference in quality of student life is not enormous. Many public schools offer excellent food and state-of-the-art facilities in student unions, gyms, dorms, and other meeting spaces.


If you’re deciding between a public and a private university, avoid relying on generalizations or stereotypes about each to make your decision. Obviously, the experiences of students at both types of schools can vary wildly, so research and evaluate each school based upon its own merit, not merely what you’ve assumed based off its public or private designation. What you find may surprise you!


Below, we’ve compiled a table summarizing the differences between public and private universities. Keep in mind these are general statements, and by no means apply to all public and private universities; if you’re deciding between a public and private school, it’s in your best interest to do research on each to make the best-informed decision possible.


Issue Public School Private School
Sticker Price Usually cheaper Usually more expensive
Financial Aid Fewer funds available More generous
Class Size Larger Smaller
Amenities Depends on the school, but on average about the same as a private school Depends on the school, but on average about the same as a public school
On Time-Graduation Rate 50-70% on average 70-90% on average


Anamaria Lopez

Anamaria Lopez

Managing Editor at CollegeVine Blog
Anamaria is an Economics major at Columbia University who's passionate about sharing her knowledge of admissions with students facing the applications process. When she's not writing for the CollegeVine blog, she's studying Russian literature and testing the limits of how much coffee one single person can consume in a day.
Anamaria Lopez