How to Decide Between a Public or Private College

December 20, 2016

How to Decide Between a Public or Private College

Earning your college degree is more important in today’s professional world than ever before—with one in every three people holding a bachelor’s degree or higher. While a college degree is beneficial across the board, the type of institution from which you earn your degree is a deeply personal decision. With so many factors weighing in on your college decision, how do you choose whether a public or private college is the right fit for you?

Cost of Tuition

How the schools are funded is a key factor differentiating public and private colleges. The funding a college receives outside of tuition directly affects its tuition price. Most public colleges are subsidized by state governments, meaning less of the college’s operating cost will have to be funded with tuition. On the other hand, private colleges rely on private contributions to offset tuition costs and do not receive government subsidies.

Though private colleges have a reputation of carrying a hefty price tag (just take a look at the 20 priciest schools in the nation), many smaller private schools have been recognized as the best value for higher education. A private college in Portland, Oregon even reduced tuition prices over the past couple of years—practically unheard of in a market that experienced a tuition increase of 179% among private colleges, and tuition increases of 226% for in-state and 296% for out-of-state students among public colleges over the past 20 years.

Public universities are often cheaper for in-state students and increase tuition costs significantly for out-of-state students. When applying to out-of-state schools, a small private college will often cost as much or even less than a public university.

With fewer students, grants and scholarships allocated directly through private schools may be available to a larger portion of the student body than those allocated through a public college.

Living costs such as average rent also need to be taken into account. The average monthly rent for an apartment in Portland will be very different than the same apartment in New York City. Because financial aid, grants, scholarships, living costs, and residency all factor into the amount paid for a college degree (outside of base tuition), determining how much a student will pay for a private college versus a public college varies significantly.

Class and Campus Size

Traditionally, private colleges are smaller than public colleges in both student body and campus size. Students looking to “blend in” may like a public college’s 200-person lecture halls, while others thrive in a more intimate classroom setting.

If a public college is divided into different schools, class sizes will likely shrink for students choosing a specific track within a degree, especially for upperclassmen. Class sizes at small private colleges are typically small enough to facilitate interaction among students and professors. Students who think they may thrive in classrooms that make it easy to get to know both professors and fellow students should consider a small private college.

Large public colleges are often considered research universities, employing professors who teach in order to secure support for their research. While this is not always the case, students are more likely to encounter this at a large public school than a small private college.

Students seeking instructors with a greater passion for teaching may find private schools to be a better fit. If a student is particularly interested in research (rather than, for example, a business degree) he or she may choose a public research university over a private Christian college due to the larger number of opportunities to pursue specialized research as part of their degree.

Campus layout is huge in determining the feel of a school. Some college campuses are spread through an entire city or neighborhood, with no real center or meeting space, utilizing the city’s public transportation and fostering a feeling of being in the “real world”. Other campuses have a clear central meeting spot and establish clear campus boundaries that foster on-foot commuting. Many colleges incorporate natural areas such as forests, rivers or beaches into campus—choosing the right campus feel is completely up to student preference and varies within public and private colleges themselves. The best way to decide what works best for you is to schedule a campus visit.

Area of Study

Students looking to major or minor in a specific topic, such as a language or area of history, may struggle to find their area of study listed among degree options at private colleges. Large public universities typically offer more major and minor options (Oregon State University offers more than 200 undergraduate degree programs), and therefore a larger pool of classes to choose from.  

Private colleges offer less diversity in majors, but often specialize in a specific academic focus. One private college may be top-notch for liberal or fine arts while another specializes in math and engineering. Incoming freshmen who know their focus—biochemical engineering or contemporary dance, for example—may find the specialization of a small private school beneficial when honing their craft.

Sports Teams

A college’s athletic department can be a huge part of campus culture. Students who want the experience of roaring football stadiums and intense school rivalries may find a large public university to be a good fit. On the other hand, if you’re vying to be a student athlete, sports teams at small private colleges are usually less competitive and easier to make. Both small private colleges and large public universities often have recreational sports teams that create community and keep students active.


A school’s community is largely determined by size and campus layout, though many factors go into the broader sense of community at a school. Some colleges have a strong network of fraternities and sororities, and some are known for their school newspapers.

Ask yourself: what’s important to you? If your faith is an important influence on your college experience, you may choose a private Christian college. If a strong athletic department is an important piece of your desired college experience, you may choose a large public college with D1 sports teams.

Smaller schools tend to create a tight-knit student body, though a large public college can feel smaller when students get involved in extracurricular activities such as school clubs. Look into college alumni associations, too (both public and private colleges have them). A community of alumni who are still active in their college community is a good indication that students value what they got out of their college experience. Alumni can also provide leads on internships and other ways to transition from college to career.