Colleges and universities exist for one very important reason: to give students a rewarding higher education. Despite this common academic goal, the classic debate of public vs. private college is one that just doesn’t ever seem to resolve itself.
The argument follows a conversation we’ve heard before. Public universities are perceived as more accessible and economical, while private colleges have the reputation of prestige and esteem, albeit at a higher cost.
While some of those impressions aren’t entirely false, there’s much more that defines the difference between public and private colleges.
Public vs. private college
Comparing some of the similarities, differences, pros, and cons can help you pare down your search and choose the right school if you’re college bound.
Tuition and overall cost
College is expensive no matter how you look at it, but the biggest fundamental difference between public and private colleges is in the cost.
For the 2015-2016 school year, the average tuition for a public university was $9,410 for in-state students and $23,893 for out-of-state residents. Compare those rates to that of a private school, which averaged $32,405.
What explains the difference in price? Public colleges are funded mostly by their respective state governments. Since state residents pay taxes that support public colleges, future students have an incentive to attend college in their home state.
Private schools can be either for-profit or nonprofit, and receive no government funding. Rates need to be adjusted accordingly to keep schools up and running.
Class sizes and student diversity
The lower cost of attending a public university often translates into a higher rate of admission and larger student body. While a state university may have tens of thousands of students, a private institution may serve a very small, exclusive population.
A state-funded public school is likely to serve a large concentration of in-state students. Attend a private school, however, and you may find your peers are geographically diverse, hailing from across the country and internationally.
Classes may also be larger and more crowded at a public school. If you’re the type who prefers more specialized instruction, you might feel lost in the shuffle of a huge lecture hall filled to capacity — just one consequence of paying less in tuition money.
Is this a tradeoff you’d be willing to save money on? It’s up to you to decide if the close-knit, intimate learning environments and better access to your professors that’s common in private schools justifies the high price of enrolling.
Class sizes aren’t the only thing more abundant at a public university — students may have a better, wider choice in the courses, majors, minors, and degrees they can pursue.
If it’s a general liberal arts major you’d like to study or something more specialized, most public colleges (especially larger state universities) have something to offer everyone.
Private universities are ideal for those with a specialized academic or scholarly focus, especially for students looking to segue into a graduate or doctoral program. The smaller scale and scope of many private colleges facilitates more opportunities for one-on-one mentoring with a faculty advisor or professor.
If you’re committed to graduating on time, finding swift employment out of college, and paying off your student loans, you may be best served to attend a private school. 53 percent of private college students earn their degrees on time, compared to only 33 percent of students at public schools.
What might explain the difference? At public colleges with large student bodies, it may become more difficult to enroll in the classes required for your major, which can prolong the time it takes to finish school — and consequently, increase the amount student loans you need to borrow.
Which one to choose?
In the private college vs. public college debate, carefully examine the type of college experience you’d like before you begin applying to universities. If it’s a public school you’d rather attend, don’t waste time and money on application fees, transcripts, and letters of recommendation towards private schools.
Keep these considerations in mind:
Prestige doesn’t always mean better job opportunities
Harvard, Yale, and other Ivy League universities aside, getting a degree from a prestigious, well-known university won’t guarantee that you’ll land that dream job.
Pick your school based on your field of interest and aim to excel in your major. Future employers want to see what you’ve learned and how you can apply your skills, instead of where you attended school.
If name recognition is important for your resume, there are plenty of public schools with a sterling reputation, and lower tuition rates to match.
Investigate each school individually
What do you want in a school? Take the public vs. private college conversation out of the equation. Does a prospective college meet most of your needs academically, financially, and otherwise?
Just because a school is public doesn’t mean that you’ll be lost in the shuffle, and just because a private school is smaller in size doesn’t mean it’s lacking in resources.
Touring a campus, meeting with academic advisors, and connecting with both current students and alumni before applying can give you an impression of the type of attention you’ll receive as a student.
Public schools aren’t necessarily cheaper
The average in-state tuition at the University of Pittsburgh last school year was $18,192. At the University of Virginia, out-of-state students can expect to be billed an average of $43,822 for tuition and fees.
Likewise, attend a private school like Brigham Young University, where tuition for 2016-17 is just $5,300 per semester — only slightly more than the average in-state public college rate.
The public vs. private college comparison is one that won’t do your future education any favors. Your school’s cost of attendance should be a big part of where you decide to attend, but it’s imperative to find a university that aligns with your values.
Identify your academic goals and wisely pick a major that will translate into a stable career field before choosing the school you’d like to attend. Which school offers the best amenities, resources, class size, culture, and financial aid?
Doing your research, making a list, and narrowing it down to your top picks is the smartest way to find a collegiate match. College is what you make of it, and though your tuition comes at a price, the enrichment a college education brings is priceless.
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