The university that one attends can have a huge impact on a student’s life upon graduation — from the network one is able to build to the employment opportunities made available to them. As such, it is important to take a few factors into consideration before choosing a university in the United States. For instance, university statistics show that the most significant criteria that students take a look at are curriculum, reputation, and the perceived ability of a university to boost career opportunities (Open Access Government, 2018). These aside, students must also choose between attending a public or private university.
You might be wondering, “what’s the difference between a public and private university in the first place?” After all, it is important that students are aware of the defining characteristics of these institutions and how well these may fit into their learning journey. Whether a university is private or public dictates not only the cost but also the learning environment and student outcomes.
So, to help you determine which option is right for you, this guide will outline the key differences between these university types. Some tips on choosing a university are also provided. In this way, you can make an informed decision when you choose between public and private universities.
Public and private universities are institutions of higher education with one main difference—their source of funds.
Public universities have their tuition and fees subsidized by local, state, and federal governments, leaving only a portion to pay for students. Private universities, on the other hand, are institutions that rely on student tuition and fees, endowments, research grants, and alumni contributions. The former has larger student bodies and wider campus sizes than the latter. While the latter is superior in terms of prestige and student-to-teacher ratio.
As of 2021, the 3,700 four-year degree-granting institutions in the United States comprise 730 public schools, 1,300 private nonprofit institutions, and 300 private for-profit schools (NCES, 2021).
Source: National Center for Education Statistics
Private and public universities differ in many aspects other than their sources of funding. This section will answer the question “What’s the difference between a public and a private university?” in 10 points.
Cost of attendance is one of the most obvious differences between public and private universities. In the academic year 2020-2021, the average college tuition and fees for public four-year in-state universities is only $10,560 (Ma, Pender, & Libassi, 2020). Since universities receive funding directly from state governments, postsecondary education at out-of-state universities costs almost thrice in in-state counterpart at $27,020 (Ma, Pender, & Libassi, 2020). Still, students of private non-profit universities need to pay the highest, averaging $37,650 per student (Ma, Pender, & Libassi, 2020). The percentage change of tuition and fees between academic years 2019-2020 and 2020-2021 is also the highest for non-profit universities at 2.1% (Ma, Pender, & Libassi, 2020). Given these numbers, you may ask yourself, “Is private university worth it?” The answer to that is, yes, it still is for most people. This will be discussed shortly.
In total, public four-year in-state students only pay an average of $12,850, including room and board, while private nonprofit students need to pay around $50,770 (Ma, Pender, & Libassi, 2020). This huge gap in tuition cost can be difficult to overlook for many budget-conscious students, considering the average time to repay student loans.
Note, however, that when financial aid is taken into consideration, the difference between the cost of education in public and private universities is lessened. This is because students at private nonprofit degree-granting institutions actually receive the most financial aid (National Center for Education Statistics, 2021). They are also offered huge tuition discounts. A report by the National Association of College and University Business Officers revealed that private university students receive an average of 44.8% tuition discount (Valbrun, 2018).
Some construe that what students pay for at private universities is prestige. After all, many private universities in the United States have established their reputation academically and have been consistently top in the rankings. So, there is no doubt that what they offer is quality education. It is also for this reason that they receive a large volume of applications.
According to the article “University brand image as competitive advantage: a two-country study,” published in the International Journal of Educational Management, “the reputation of a university plays an important role in the decision-making among students. Everything else remaining the same, a student would like to join a university with a better reputation. This is in line with existing research which says that a highly-reputed university draws plenty of advantages—a better choice of faculty and students, more endowment from alumnus and industry support, which contributes to the brand image of the school” (Panda, Pandey, Bennett, Tian, 2019).
One common thing about prestigious universities is they are harder to get into than the average ones (Hess, 2019). The most prestigious ones accept only less than 10% of their applicants (Hess, 2019).
As shown in the table below, 18% of private nonprofit degree-granting institutions accept only less than 50% of the applications they receive (NCES, 2019). Meanwhile, only 10% of public universities and 14% of all degree-granting institutions in America have set the same standards (NCES, 2019).
Universities are much more lenient in two-year degree programs, with 92% having open admissions or no application criteria (NCES, 2019).
Source: National Center for Education Statistics
The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) reports that in Fall 2018 the average full-time student to full-time faculty ratio is 14:1. The ratio was highest at private-for-profit institutions at 22:1 and lowest at private nonprofit four-year institutions at 10:1 (NCES, 2020). Meanwhile, public two-year institutions have a student-to-teacher ratio of 18:1 and public four-year institutions, 14:1 (NCES, 2020).
A lower student-to-teacher ratio comes with the benefit of more focused, individualized instruction, which is ideal for mastery learning. Teachers can afford to have more time for one-on-one consultations with their students.
Private universities often offer smaller class sizes to students because their overall student population is also lower. The downside to this is they also tend to offer fewer courses and degree programs than public universities.
Students are more drawn to in-state rather than out-of-state public universities due to the price difference that amounts to $16,460 on average. Because of this, public universities tend to have students with similar geographic backgrounds.
Students in private universities are more geographically diverse. However, they are not necessarily more diverse in other demographic areas, such as race, ethnicity, sex, gender, and socioeconomic status.
In the academic year 2017-2018, the race/ethnicity of the undergraduate student population in America is predominantly white (63.2%) (NCES, 2019). The second-largest percentage consists of Hispanic students (14.2%), followed by Black (10.4%) (NCES, 2019). The remaining populations are Asian/Pacific Islanders (8.0%) and American Indian/Alaska Natives (0.5%) (NCES, 2019). There is also a very small percentage that consists of students of two or more races (3.7%) (NCES, 2019).
In Fall 2019, female students made up 57% of total undergraduate enrollment in degree-granting postsecondary institutions (NCES, 2021). The remaining 43% or 7.1 million students are male (NCES, 2021).
Campus life is quieter in private universities compared to public ones. The latter is known for its thriving party scene. There is also a greater number of students one can choose to be friends with and a wider option of student clubs to join.
Students in private universities tend to be more scholarly and focus on their studies. However, they also tend to live on campus and can form close social ties with their roommates and classmates. There are also social gatherings, although they are not as big and as often.
Students, whether from public or private universities, are advised to put in the effort to build their professional network as early as their undergraduate years. There is not much difference in networking opportunities between these two types of institutions given today’s equalizing factor: social media. Career networking can prove to be very helpful later on in achieving professional success. In fact, according to Hubspot, 85% of job posts are filled through networking (Frost, 2017).
Private universities are a better match for students who prefer to have more direct guidance in their studies. Teachers at public universities holding large classes of 200 cannot possibly form close relationships with each one of their students. They also have limited time for one-on-one consultations. Moreover, they tend to keep up with the top LMS trends so students can expect to be exposed to the latest technologies and learning methodologies.
In public universities, students tend to direct their overall learning experience and are responsible for seeking help from their teachers or advisers should they need it.
Public universities provide students with more research opportunities and have larger funding and facilities than private universities. Students who are serious about conducting research can capitalize on these resources that will be available to them with very little price in public universities.
Public universities are known to fare better in sports than private universities. Although private universities also have athletic programs, few are able to match public universities in this area.
In addition to athletic programs, public universities also have bigger campus events and conduct them more frequently than private universities. Their extracurricular options are also much wider owing to the fact that they have larger student bodies.
Although public universities are easier to get into, they have been found to be harder to come out of with a degree. According to NCES, only 35% of public university students graduate on time. Students at private nonprofit institutions have a better chance of completing their degrees within four years, with a graduation rate of 48.3% (NCES, 2018). Meanwhile, private for-profit institutions are probably the worst choice, with only about one in four graduating on time (NCES, 2018).
After graduation, students from more reputable universities will have a better chance of securing a job. This makes private universities even more attractive with respect to student outcomes.
At this point, you must already have some universities in mind. It may be universities near your location, best value colleges that offer a program you want, or your dream university. Upon going through the differences between public and private universities, you probably already have an idea of which one will suit you better. Here are a few tips to further strengthen your decision:
Now that you know the differences between the two types of universities, you might be wondering, “is it better to go to a public or private university?” Truth be told, one option is not better than the other. The answer to this question will greatly depend on your preferences, which range from the type of curriculum you prefer, your budget, as well as the type of learning environment you will thrive in.
This article outlined 10 differences, namely (1) tuition cost, (2) reputation and prestige, (3) student-to-teacher ratio, (4) culture and demographics, (5) social life, (6) networking opportunities, (7) learning environment, (8) research opportunities, (9) extracurriculars, and (10) student outcomes. Hopefully, the examination of these aspects of education gave you clarity on which would be best for your personal and professional growth.
Should you want more information on this topic, looking into university statistics and online education statistics will also prove valuable to you at this point. You can also check out the differences between schools, colleges, and universities to further expand your options.