Public College vs. Private – What You Need to Know

The age old debate. Should I go to a public college or a private college? Depends on who you ask. Some people will say, “Go to a public college, why pay all that money for a private college when you don’t have to!” Other people may say, “Go to a private college, it is more individualized, and a better opportunity to succeed.” We have laid out everything you need to know when choosing between public college vs. private.

Both of the above mentioned people gave relatively naive answers to why you should go to a public or private college.  Their comments show that they are not fully informed on both the pros and cons of both types of colleges. Check out our table below to see the full breakdown of a public college versus a private college.

Public college Private college
Funding Receive funding from the state, which helps lower tuition. Rely on tuition, endowment, and donations from its alumni network.
Cost Offer in-state tuition to students who reside in the state.

Tuition + room and board = Cost

More expensive tuition than public colleges. This may be deceiving to some as they don’t take into consideration potential financial aid.
Financial aid Offer financial aid in the form of the FAFSA, also give out some money for academic scholarships. Tend to offer more financial aid than public colleges. Do this to stay competitive versus public colleges.
Class size Tend to have bigger classes freshmen and sophomore year, but as you move further into your major, class sizes will drop. Usually have smaller classes that are more individualized.
Student life/campus life Will usually be a bigger school compared to a private college. Bigger school = bigger campus (usually!) Will probably have more sports and clubs on campus. Will more often than not be a smaller school. Smaller school will lead to a close knit community. May see the same faces.


Public colleges receive funding from the state, which in turn allows them to give their resident students in-state tuition.  States give colleges funding to help keep prices for college relatively affordable, while also make the college better, both academically and socially. Private colleges do not receive funding from the state (which makes them private…) but instead they rely mostly on tuition, their endowment, and donations from alumni. Since they do not receive public funding, they have a higher initial tuition, which we like to call the “sticker price.”


Like we talked about earlier, public colleges are able to offer in-state tuition to its resident students. The average cost of tuition for an in-state student, at a public college, is $8,655 plus $9,205 for room and board.  Tuition plus room and board brings us to $17,860 per year at a public college.

Let’s take a look at the average cost of private colleges. The average tuition at a private college is $29,056 plus $10,462 in room and board.  Tuition plus room and board brings us to $39,518 per year at a private college.  One thing to keep in mind is that this is the “sticker price” that we are always talking about. Very rarely is this the final price a student will pay at a private college. Private colleges tend to give out more financial and academic money in order to stay competitive versus public colleges.

Financial aid:  

The first thing you should do regarding financial aid is fill out the FAFSA.  FAFSA stands for free application for federal student aid.  FAFSA is a government program designed to help students manage the cost of college.

FAFSA takes into account many different things including:

  • How much money you or your parents make
  • Medical costs of family members or yourself
  • If other family members are in college

Private colleges tend to give out more money than public colleges. This is important to know when looking at private colleges, so that you do not get discouraged. They will be more willing to give out academic money to knock down that “sticker price” and to encourage you to come to the school. Don’t be afraid to reach out to an admissions officer or the financial aid office and ask what you may qualify for, you might be surprised!

Class size:

This really comes down to how big the school is. Since public colleges tend to be bigger and have more students, they will have bigger classes.  Usually, these classes are biggest your freshmen and sophomore years when you are taking pre-requisite classes, and they will get smaller as you dive deeper into your major.

Private colleges are usually smaller schools. With smaller schools comes smaller class sizes. It is important to look at the student to professor ratio. A 15:1 ratio means that for every one professor, he will have fifteen students to teach.  Many private colleges pride themselves on smaller class sizes and giving more individual attention.

Student life/campus life:

Like we said earlier, this really depends on how big the school is.  A bigger public college will more likely than not have a bigger campus than a smaller private college.  A bigger campus means more buildings, more dorms, more athletic facilities and more walking! A smaller campus means a close knit community, seeing the same people for the most part, familiarity, and less walking!  Public colleges, because they are bigger, will have more sports teams and more clubs compared to a smaller private college. Just because you go to a smaller school does not mean that living on campus is not fun! There will still be plenty going on to keep you busy!

When choosing a college, we think it is best that you do not initially cross a school off of your list just because it is a public or private college.  Too many students get caught up in the “sticker price” of private colleges and it discourages them from applying.  We cannot stress this enough, just ask the school what kind of aid you would qualify for! You might be pleasantly surprised! Some students may think they do not want to go to a huge school like Penn. State. Take a visit, see what it is like! You cannot go wrong with a huge public college or a small private one.

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