Public or private college? This is one of the first decisions to make when you’re looking at colleges. 

It’s important to know the differences between the two and to know some questions to ask to help you make the best choice for you!

Before we get started, it’s a good idea to remember that you might want to apply to both public and private colleges, including some community colleges. This helps you keep your options open and creates even more competition for your skills! 

But what differences between public and private colleges should you consider when making this decision?


One of the biggest factors that differentiates private and public colleges is cost. Because they don’t have the funding from the government, private schools generally charge tuition that is higher than public universities. This generality is especially true for students attending a public university where they can receive in-state tuition. 

However, a benefit of private schools is that their tuition is the same, no matter what state a student is from. Public university prices increase significantly for students not attending in their home state.

Both types of colleges offer merit scholarships, usually based GPA or test scores, and need-based aid based on your family income. Don’t discount either option before doing your research and talking to a school’s admission team.

Class Sizes

At private colleges, class sizes are typically much smaller, allowing for more student engagement with professors. While many public universities offer honors programs that give students that smaller feel from the beginning, it can be easy to fade into the crowd when you are in a lecture hall filled with hundreds of students until you reach upper-level classes. 

At larger public universities, however, there might be more extensive class offerings than at a private college. No matter where you attend, sit at the front of the class, go to your professors’ office hours, and try to find great students to study with (usually others who sit in the front!). 

The most important piece is to understand what will be the best setting for you to learn.

College Funding

The defining difference between public and private colleges is where they get their funding. 

Public colleges receive funding from state governments while private colleges receive funding from tuition and endowments. Most private colleges are not-for-profit but there are some for-profit private colleges as well (these are typically not as highly regarded). 

When it comes to a private college, it can be useful to look at the size of their endowment, if it is public information. You want to make sure they have the funding to stay open, especially in more-challenging economic times. This can be helpful information, especially because you don’t want to run the risk of a small private college closing halfway through your college career! 

Community and Social Life

Both types of colleges offer great opportunities for students to connect and build relationships. 

Private colleges are usually smaller, making it easier for some students to get to know others on campus and have an impact. That said, at a bigger university, there are clubs and activities and organizations for nearly every interest! No matter what type of school you’re considering, ask about some of these activities on a college visit.

Take time to really think about what size of school and student body you would thrive in. If you’re looking for a smaller, tight-knit community, a private college might be the right choice. If you want a large number of opportunities and activities (and plan to diligently pursue them), then a public college might be a better fit for you. 

Sports and Activities

Smaller public colleges or private universities are usually in lower sports divisions such as Division II, III or NAIA, which can offer students the chance to continue playing the sports they loved in high school, even if those students aren’t at a DI level.

If you plan to retire from your main high school sport or activity, make sure you find another extracurricular to invest your time in during college.

Graduation Rates

When it comes to graduation rates, the 6-year graduation rate at private nonprofit schools is slightly higher than the 6-year graduation rate at public institutions:  67% at private colleges and 61% at public universities.

While these are good numbers to know, what matters most is the graduation rate at the specific college you plan to attend. Graduation rates reflect the community that you’re entering. You want to be around students who will challenge you and motivate you to do your best. 


At either private or public colleges, you get out what you put in, especially in terms of campus involvement and academic growth. 

For example, you typically have more access to your professors and smaller classes at private colleges. This makes it easier to naturally build relationships with professors, while you might have to take more initiative or be part of an honors college or smaller program at a public university. 

Don’t get complacent, however; you could also waste those great opportunities at a smaller college. Make your college experience successful! Get the most out of it.If you need help finding and choosing colleges, learn more about OnToCollege College Admissions Counseling!

Find the Perfect College at the Right Cost

College admissions can be complex, but you don’t have to do it alone. John Baylor and OnToCollege are here to help.