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Public vs. private colleges: Here's what you need to know

Here's how to recognize some key differences between public and private college that can affect your student’s experience.
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There are many colleges to choose from, and navigating between public and private colleges may be confusing at times. This guide will help you understand the main differences between public and private colleges.


The main difference between private and public colleges is funding. Public universities and colleges receive a lot of funding from state governments (state taxes). This can help bring tuition costs down, as money from tuition doesn’t need to account for all of the college’s expenses. Private colleges do not receive any money from state legislatures and they rely mostly on tuition and private donations. This generally means that tuition is higher at private colleges, although not always.


Private colleges generally tend to be smaller in size. This is not always the case, but most of the time you will find a much smaller student body at private colleges. This can make class sizes smaller, but may limit the degree offerings at the school. Because public universities tend to be bigger, your student will likely have more degree offerings to choose from, but may end up in a lecture hall with 500 other students.

Student body

Public colleges and universities generally draw a large in-state population. This is partly due to the lower cost of attending an in-state public college. After all, state taxes that families pay are going toward this educational institution. Out-of-state students are still welcome, but generally pay more than in-state students. Because of this, private colleges are likely to have a more geographically diverse student body than at a public college. However, this does not mean that the private colleges will be more diverse in other factors like socioeconomic status, race, and ethnicity.


Some private institutions are said to be more challenging to get into. For example, many Ivy League schools like Harvard University and Yale University are private schools. Because of their reputations, they often get thousands and thousands of student applications, making the likelihood of getting in much lower for each student applying. However, not all private schools are Ivy League and many are very accessible. And not all public schools are easy to get in to; many also have challenging admissions processes. The University of California, Berkeley and the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill are both public research universities, but have relatively low acceptance rates.

For more information about the different options for higher education, read our guide to education after high school.

The choice between public and private schools is not about what is better or worse, but recognizing some key differences that can affect your student’s experience in college. As always, this guide is not true for all schools, and there are exceptions. Research each individual institution before applying to and attending the school. Above all, when deciding where to apply or attend school, consider how the school can meet your student’s academic, social and financial needs.

Parent Toolkit resources were developed by NBC News Learn with the help of subject-matter experts, including Stephen Handel, Executive Director, Higher Education at The College Board and Scott Allen, Former President, Washington State PTA.