Female student smiling walking to class at a university wearing a backpack and headphones; holding textbooks and a cup of coffee

When you’re starting to look at colleges and universities, the options can be overwhelming.  There are close to 4,000 degree-granting higher education institutions in the U.S. alone! Aside from thinking about what you want to study and where you might want to live, one big choice you’ll need to make when narrowing down your list of preferred schools is whether to attend a public or private university. 

We’ll explain the distinctions between public and private colleges and outline the factors to consider when deciding between them. 

What’s the difference between public and private colleges?

Public and private universities differ in many ways, but their primary distinction is how they’re funded. Public universities are mainly funded by state and federal governments, while private universities are funded by tuition, donations, endowments, grants, and partnerships. 

This difference in funding sources contributes to a number of other ways in which public and private colleges differ. You’ll want to consider these factors when weighing which type of school is best for you. 

Characteristics of public and private universities


As you may have already noticed when researching schools, there’s a pretty big cost disparity between public and private universities, with public schools being significantly cheaper on average. The average cost of tuition and fees for the 2023-2024 school year at a public college is $10,662 for in-state students and $23,630 for out-of-state students. For private colleges, that number jumps to $42,162. 

It’s worth noting that these figures are the “sticker price”–in other words, the upfront cost of tuition without any discounts or financial assistance. Private schools typically offer more opportunities for financial aid than public schools through scholarships, grants, and discounted tuition. 


Private schools have the reputation of being more exclusive. This is partly due to size; private universities have smaller student bodies than their public counterparts. In 2022, roughly 13.5 million students were enrolled in public colleges in the U.S., while just 5 million were enrolled in private ones. 

However, the difference in school size doesn’t necessarily translate to a big difference in selectivity. According to the National Association for College Admission Counseling, the acceptance rate for public universities in the fall of 2022 was 78%. The rate at private universities was only slightly lower at 70%.

The one big difference in accessibility is between in-state and out-of-state students. Since public colleges are partly funded by state taxpayer dollars, those schools prioritize students who live in the same state. Not only is tuition significantly cheaper, but admission rates are also higher. In-state students at private universities don’t typically receive the same advantages. 

Class size

The quintessential college image of a lecture hall packed with students is a scene you’re likelier to find at a public university than a private one. While some courses–especially those for first-year students–are still conducted in a lecture hall, private universities are more likely to cap class sizes at a smaller number, like 30 students. This can lead to a more intimate learning experience and make receiving one-on-one attention from instructors easier. 

Choice of academic curriculum

Private schools are more limited in their curriculum selection than public universities, some of which offer hundreds of majors to choose from. Some private colleges focus on a particular field of study, like engineering or humanities, with all students taking courses in this curriculum. 

Campus culture

One of the more noteworthy but less tangible aspects of college life that’s different between public and private universities is the vibe on campus. 

Because public colleges are larger, they offer a broader and more diverse range of activities and groups for students to participate in. Athletics and sporting events often play a bigger role. If you want to be active in campus life, you’ll have no problem finding a range of options to choose from at a public school. 

That said, the larger size at a public university can also require being more assertive in finding a place to “fit in.” At a smaller private university, smaller class sizes and more intimate settings can make connecting with classmates easier.

Research opportunities

Public universities are research juggernauts, conducting over $57 billion worth of research annually. The work done at public research institutions drives innovation and progress worldwide. Private universities also conduct research, but if this is a priority to you, you’ll want to zero in on private schools that are specifically focused on research to find one with a robust program. 

It’s important to remember that we’re speaking broadly about all of the factors above. There are exceptions; some private universities have larger student bodies than many public universities. Sometimes, the cost of a public school is comparable to or more than that of a private school, and so on. The important thing is to include these factors in your considerations as you do your own research to decide which school is best for you.

How to decide between a public and private university

Here are some additional considerations to keep in mind when choosing what type of college to attend.


If you want to stay relatively close to home when going to college, it’s hard to beat the value of a state school. You can save a lot of money by taking advantage of in-state tuition and potentially even living at home for some or all of your time as a student. 


Consider how you’ll pay for school and subsequently, how your financial situation could impact your collegiate experience. Are you eligible for need-based or merit-based financial aid? Do you plan on applying for scholarships? What about working while you’re in school to offset costs? All of these will impact which option is most financially feasible. 

Learning style

Do you learn easily in a large group setting? Are you comfortable with more independent forms of study, like virtual classes? If so, the sometimes large class sizes at public universities won’t be an issue for you. On the other hand, if you learn better in a smaller group or want to receive one-on-one attention from instructors, a private school may be more conducive to learning for you. 

Desired career path

If you already have a strong idea of what you want to do for a living, selecting a school might make it easier. Colleges are often recognized for being top educators in certain fields–the University of Pennsylvania for business, Massachusetts Institute of Technology for engineering, and UCLA for fine arts are a few examples. 

On the other hand, if you’re unsure about your career path or want to explore many options, opting for a large state university with numerous academic programs may give you the flexibility you desire. 

Ideal college experience

When you picture your ideal college experience, does it include tailgate parties in a packed stadium before football games? Do you envision intimate gatherings with professors and classmates debating topics like politics or philosophy? Do you see yourself spending hours in the lab immersed in groundbreaking research? Spending some time thinking about your vision for your college life can shed light on whether you’re more likely to experience it at a public or a private school. 

Transfer opportunities 

No matter which type of school you choose to begin your collegiate studies, keep in mind that you can always transfer to another institution along the way. It’s not uncommon for students to begin their studies at an affordable community college or state school and later transfer to a private college for their more advanced coursework. The converse also happens often, with students getting their bearings at a small private school before later transferring to the larger environment of a public university. 

If you decide to transfer, you must complete another application process and be accepted at your desired school. Also, be sure to check that the credits you’ve obtained thus far (or enough of them) are transferable to the new school. 

Choosing between a public and private university is a big decision that can impact the trajectory of your college career. By weighing your academic and extracurricular preferences against your financial and geographical needs, you’ll better understand what type of school will put you on the path toward a learning-rich and enjoyable college experience. 

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Pete Newsome is the founder of zengig, which he created after more than two decades in staffing and recruiting. He’s also President of 4 Corner Resources, the Forbes America's Best Staffing and Recruiting Firm he founded in 2005, and is a member of the American Staffing Association and TechServe Alliance. In addition to his passion for staffing, Pete is now committed to zengig becoming the most comprehensive source of expert advice, tools, and resources for career growth and happiness. When he’s not in the office or spending time with his family of six, you can find Pete sharing his career knowledge and expertise through public speaking, writing, and as the host of the Finding Career Zen & Hire Calling podcasts. Connect with Pete on LinkedIn