At first it might seem like every college and university is public and private. After all, anybody can apply for an invitation to get in, but not everybody will receive an invitation.
Of course, if the world made a lot more sense, then this wouldn’t be an issue. The idea of public and private higher-learning institutions refers to one specific difference, but that one difference either implies or actively causes a whole bunch of other dissimilarities.
The official difference between a public and private college (or any school for that matter) is a public institution is funded by state taxpayers while a private one operates entirely on its own money.
The idea behind a public university is every state has a few of them to serve its populace; this is why public colleges almost always offer cheaper tuition to in-state residents as an incentive for students to stay in their home state. Consequently, most have a predominately-local student body as well.
Meanwhile, a private college is just the product of some person or group thinking they could do a better job at education than the state could. Therefore, private colleges have no geographic loyalties and their only preference is toward those willing and able to pay.
This one key difference already sets a bunch of other things in motion that create much different landscapes at private and public institutions.
Money, Money, Money, Money… (Money)
Because they’re not receiving funding from the state, private colleges are almost always more expensive because its tuition payers are footing the bills that the state would usually pay at a public university. Though there may be exceptions.
It’s good to remember that public universities aren’t always cheaper. Sometimes, a public university’s tuition might rise if its state is strapped for cash.
That being said, many private colleges are generous to dole out plenty in financial assistance. Some don’t give out much, but some give out a lot. Public universities still offer plenty of scholarships, but a private college is more likely to offer a full ride to a qualifying student.
But why would a place that needs students to pay for its basic needs give away entry for free?
Doing Their Own Thing
Private colleges very much have a uniqueness to the way they’re run, and part of that is banking on prestige.
Sometimes that involves giving scholarships to students the college believes will donate back into the school when they’re successful in their careers (which are expected to be successful because they went to such a very prestigious school). This way, the college makes itself look good and still gets paid by its alumni eventually.
Public universities are also guilty of giving a lot of money to those less desperate for it. But looking at the backgrounds of Ivy Leaguers, both the ones receiving financial aid and the ones paying full price, one can be forgiven for wondering if it’s not just a bad stereotype that private colleges are exclusively for rich kids.
Private colleges are not exclusively for rich kids, but there’s undeniably a higher barrier for entry.
Meanwhile, public universities are more diverse specifically because of how accessible they are, both in terms of financing and admission rates.
Private colleges are not completely without diversity, but it might be more that everybody’s from different parts of the country and the world than socioeconomic differences. But in keeping their prestige, private colleges are not bashful about being choosy with their pupils.
The People All Around
Private colleges admit fewer students period.
Some want to foster the school’s own little diverse community of scholars, and others unabashedly just want the most successful high-schoolers in the country, regardless of any unfortunate implications.
But whereas state colleges and universities often cram tens of thousands of people into their campuses, private colleges often have only a few thousand students, if not some number in the hundreds.
However, private colleges turn this exclusivity into a selling point. It’s not just for the prestige you’ll carry with you after graduation, but for the close, personal atmosphere you’ll be in while attending.
Public universities are notorious for huge lecture-hall classes with several dozen, if not hundreds, of students altogether at once. If you need to get the professor’s attention for whatever reason, it can be a great challenge.
Private colleges know this, so they boast about small class sizes thanks to their small student bodies. Private-college classes are often fewer than two dozen students, and everybody in the class knows everybody’s name. It’s almost like you’re still in high school.
It’s actually much like you’re still in high school. At private colleges, attending class is often mandatory, and you can expect the professor to call you out by name if they see you scrolling on your phone. Some people crave this and want their education to be structured and serious, whereas others prefer to have the option to not have to take their education seriously if they so choose.
What public universities lack in coziness, they make up for in opportunity. The higher the population of a college, the more likely it offers any given sport, club or extracurricular you can think of joining.
Private colleges often have a much more limited selection of activities, sometimes only things that match the college’s culture. But what exactly do I mean by that?
The (Hopefully) Real Reason You Go to College
Hopefully it’s not too controversial to say the main appeal of college ought to be its academics.
State universities, being a service offered to the general public, will have a much wider array of majors and programs for you to choose from, dabbling in a little bit of everything. A private college may only have a focus on one family of subjects, such as things relating to law, medicine, English or the arts.
Some believe if you really know what you want to study, then the best option for you is a private college where that is its specialty; others insist you could learn it just as well from a state-college program (and if you change your mind, you can just change you major instead of transferring altogether).
It very much depends on how you feel about that old adage, “A jack of all trades and a master of none, is oftentimes better than a master of one.”
Any other resource that tries to spell out the differences between public and private colleges always seems to conclude with a note that neither form is better than the other, just that one will suit your needs better. But it never tries to help you figure out which one that would be. To be fair, those writers don’t know your mind and neither do we, but we can at least try to make things a bit less hazy.
If you’re certain in your educational career goals and you have a set plan, a private college could work well for you. It would be harder to get admitted, but once you’re in, you might just be set.
If you want some time to explore, some time to savor your youth, some time to socialize and make bad (but legal) decisions, and if you want to save some serious money, a public university might be more up your alley. Not only would you be surrounded by people who are exploring just like yourself, but also many people who are unlike yourself.
In the end, these are still just broad generalizations. There are plenty of large private colleges that have the vibe of a state school, and some regional public universities with a much more subdued feel to them.
The fact that such “vibes” and “feels” exist is telling that we’ve come to expect different things from different institutions.