How to Decide Between a Public or Private College

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.




Are Small Colleges Still Affordable?

Are Small Colleges Still Affordable?

Though many schools of higher education are firmly rooted in tradition—through campus life, sports, and legacy families—what higher education looks like today is quite different than it did for previous generations. With over 2,700 schools to choose from, online classes are becoming the norm and more schools are offering completely online degrees. Flexible schedules are allowing more people to earn degrees than ever before, but it comes at a cost (literally).

Tuition prices have skyrocketed in the past 20 years. Between 1995 and 2015, the average tuition at private U.S. universities rose by 179%, surpassed by out-of-state tuition for public schools’ increase of 226%, and in-state public university tuition alarming jump of 296% (note that inflation between the same years grew by just 55.1%). Collectively, the 44 million Americans saddled with student loans are $1.3 trillion in student debt. The average higher education graduate in 2016 has $37,172 in student loan debt, 6% more than students who graduated just one year before. So in short, all universities, big and small, are increasingly expensive.

Cost aside, earning your college degree is more important today than it ever has been—with one in every three people holding a bachelor’s degree or higher. With so many factors determining which career path is right for you, affordable small colleges make it easier to find your perfect fit without drowning in debt.

Why Choose a Small College?

Small colleges can be among the most affordable options for higher education and are scaled to create a strong sense of community among students and staff. Starting college can be overwhelming, but a smaller campus with fewer students can reduce reasons for anxiety.

Academically, affordable small colleges are more likely to employ instructors and professors who are there because they love to teach. Large universities often pull big-name professors who teach in order to have an institution to conduct their research. Small class sizes at small colleges facilitate one-on-one interactions and a tight-knit learning environment. With a shorter list of majors, small colleges often offer customizable degrees that cater to the career goals of each individual student.

How to Keep Small Colleges Affordable

Whether you go big or small, starting with a low base tuition is the best way to keep college affordable. Grants, loans, scholarships, and part-time jobs all make getting your degree more affordable, but first you need to determine which combination of these subsidies and payment methods is right for you:

Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA)

During your college years, you’ll likely become quite acquainted with the acronym FAFSA—a huge factor in determining the amount and the kind of financial help you’ll receive each year. Your year in school, enrollment status, cost of attendance, and the income of your parents or guardians (unless you are an independent student, then your personal income will be a factor instead) all determine your eligibility for financial help. The tricky thing is, even if your parents or guardians do not plan to help pay for your tuition, FAFSA will take their income into account as if they are the ones picking up the check.

Government financial aid is divided among two categories. Need-based aid is financial aid that you can receive if you have financial need and meet other eligibility criteria. It includes grants, subsidized loans, and work-study opportunities. Non-need-based aid does not take Expected Family Contribution (based on household assets and income) into account, but rather is based on the other assistance a student has or will be receiving. Unsubsidized loans and minimal grants are included in non-need-based aid.


To qualify for both subsidized and unsubsidized loans, a student must be enrolled at least half-time (taking 6 credit hours of classes, for example). Subsidized loans give students a six-month post-graduation grace period until your payment obligation kicks in. Interest accumulated while the student is enrolled at least half-time is paid by the U.S. Department of Education. Interest payments for unsubsidized loans accrue throughout a student’s enrollment time and are tacked-on to the loan amount once the student graduates.  


Unlike loans, grants do not have to be paid back. Grants can be privately or governmentally funded. The Federal Pell Grant is part of FAFSA’s need-based aid and is usually awarded only to undergraduate students who have not yet earned a degree. Every student who is deemed eligible on a need-based evaluation can receive the Pell Grant. The amount allotted per student each year fluctuates and will change each academic year. Even if you do not qualify for grants through the government, there’s a good chance you can apply to some through your affordable small college’s website.


Scholarships are awarded for just about anything you could think of and though they usually require a lengthy application process, scholarships can help save thousands of dollars on college tuition. High schools, extracurriculars, and sports teams, as well as private foundations and companies, are all great resources for potential scholarship money. College websites list scholarships awarded through the school. Like grants, you don’t have to pay back scholarships.


Nearly every school offers a work-study program that provides part-time work for enrolled students with financial need as determined by FAFSA. Work-study programs are often available to both half-time and full-time students and include both on-campus jobs and jobs through select nonprofit organizations or public agencies. Work-study jobs are typically very flexible and work around class schedules. Students are paid hourly and placement is determined by a student’s skill-set and financial need, though the early worm does usually get the employment worm! Be proactive. If your FAFSA determined you eligible, apply before the semester starts to increase your chances of being placed.