Public or private college? Know the differences between the two and some questions to ask to help make your best choice. Consider applying 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, and multiple price points. What factors should you consider when choosing among colleges, public and private?


Because private schools receive much less government funding, they generally charge higher tuition than public universities. This variance is especially true for students attending an in-state public university. At public universities, prices increase significantly for students not attending in their home state. However, private school tuition is the same for all students. 

Many public and private colleges offer merit scholarships, usually based on GPA or test scores, and all offer need-based aid based on your family income.

Class Sizes

At private colleges, class sizes are typically smaller, allowing for more student engagement with professors. While many public universities offer honors programs that give students a smaller feel, many freshman classes at public universities are held in lecture halls with hundreds of students. 

At larger public universities, however, class offerings may be more extensive than at a private college. No matter where you attend, sit at the front of the class, go to your professors’ office hours each week, and find great students to study with (usually others who sit in the front). Ideally, you’ll attend many small scintillating seminars and few large lazy lectures.

College Funding

Public colleges receive funding from state governments, tuition, and endowments, while private colleges receive funding from tuition and endowments. Most private colleges are not-for-profit but some for-profit private colleges exist as well (be wary of for-profit colleges as they are responsible for a disproportionate percentage of adults who default on their student debt). 

At a private college, look at the size of their endowment, if it is public information. Make sure they have the funding to stay open (at least $75M in endowment principal). You don’t want to risk a small private college closing halfway through your college career.

Community and Social Life

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

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. 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

The 6-year graduation rate is 68% at private colleges and 63% at public universities. 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. It’s not where but how you attend college.

You typically have more access to your professors and smaller classes at private colleges. Similar experiences at a big public university might require more initiative or enrollment in an honors college. 

Don’t get complacent; you could also waste those great opportunities at a smaller college. 

Make your college experience successful. For 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.