Breaking down public vs. private colleges: Everything that you need to know when applying to college
When applying to colleges, it can be tough to refrain from focusing too much on “prestige,” “big names,” top-tier reputations, and public vs. private classifications. While it can be helpful to compare and contrast colleges, and while reputation and knowing whether a college is public or private can provide useful information about the community, academic rigor, and legacy of the university, it is important to keep in mind that these labels can often be misunderstood.
Particularly, when it comes to deciding between a public and private institution, many students get caught up in the idea that public universities cannot achieve the same level of prestige as private institutions, or that they are overall easier to get into and less impressive to professionals in the workforce. In reality, that thought can keep you from exploring some amazing options, and you could neglect to truly understand the difference between the two options in terms of what experiences they offer. Here are some things to keep in mind when comparing public and private colleges:
1. Cost/Financial Aid: Public universities generally end up being much less expensive to attend (both tuition & room/board) than private universities, simply because their funding is subsidized by the state (and/or federal funds) on top of tuition/fees and donor gifts. Private schools, on the other hand, rely almost entirely on tuition and donor generosity, which results in a higher cost of attendance for most students. Keep in mind that this price tag often has little to do with the actual academic rigor of the institution, and more with the sources of funding for each one. Because of this, a higher number of public universities are considered among the “best-value” colleges, and can be more accessible to lower-income students.
However, it is also important to note that private universities usually offer more financial aid packages (often of higher value) than public universities do, largely because of the volume of students who attend these institutions. This can significantly change your overall cost of attendance: be sure to speak with a financial aid advisor at the schools that you are most heavily considering in order to ensure that you’ve explored all options (for both public and private). Sources of financial aid differ based on what college you attend (Pell Grants, merit aid, gift aid directly from the university, campus-specific awards, outside scholarships, etc.), so it is important to do your research ahead of time.
2. Acceptance Rates, Size: Private schools will usually have lower acceptance rates than public schools do, simply because they are composed of a smaller community (which means that less applicants are admitted). Particularly when a private university has earned a level of prestige such as the Ivy League, there will be more applicants that apply simply because they have heard of the name on numerous occasions, and they want to throw their hat in the ring because - why not? That is NOT to say that the Ivy Leagues are not excellent colleges, but it’s worth noting that the level of prestige and the acceptance rate do not increase in tandem: usually a higher prestige school will acquire more applicants, yet will raise their enrollment numbers at a much slower rate from year to year. Public schools simply offer more spots for admission proportional to the applicant population because of the larger size of their community.
Additionally, this size disparity can lead to differences in resources and attention received by students. Generally, (at private schools) students are guided more towards helpful resources than they are at public schools, and oftentimes students at these institutions can get more personal one-on-one time when they need academic help (largely because of the fact that there are less students needing time from tutors, professors, etc.). At public schools, since the community is generally much larger, students tend to be unsure about where and how to seek out help when they need it, and are often expected to take initiative if they need something rather than having someone come to them. This can often lead to students feeling alone and ignored in a larger environment, and thinking that no one is there to support them. However, most public schools do offer that one-on-one time: you just have to know where to look! Try connecting with other students and reaching out to university support programs to figure out the best way to get attention when you need it. Being proactive is the best way to tackle any feelings of being lost in larger public school environments: seek out support systems before you need them, and you will start to make your larger public university feel like a smaller liberal arts college.
3. Residency/Demographics: Particularly when it comes to state schools (or the UC system for example), public schools have a certain ratio/quota to meet in regards to in-state vs. out of state/international students. In addition, tuition is generally much lower for in-state students at public schools, so more in-state students are likely to apply because of this discount. Therefore, regardless of racial/ethnic demographics, you will usually see a larger percentage of in-state students in these state colleges, and a smaller percentage of out-of-state or international students. In private colleges, tuition usually does not fluctuate based on residency, and there are no quotas directly from the state that dictate this demographic. Therefore, you may see a wider distribution with regards to residency at private schools.
Demographically speaking, when it comes to race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status, public schools often tend to be more diverse than private schools. While this is a blanket statement that can differ from college to college, this generally stems from the lower tuition offered at public schools, which makes higher education marginally more accessible to lower-income families. However, many colleges, regardless if they are public or private, offer identity-based groups to help students connect with peers that share the same racial or ethnic background, which can make all the difference in your college experience. Even if some universities statistically speaking are “more diverse,” it is important for you to seek out the ways in which your chosen university prioritizes inclusion, community building, and support for underrepresented students. After all, statistics will not dictate the quality of your college experience - the actual resources and support provided will make all the difference!
4. Religious Affiliation: By law, public colleges are secular in nature, meaning that they cannot have any formal affiliation with a religion. Private colleges, however, are not legally obligated to follow the “separation of church and state,” and can have ties to certain religions (whether that be through specific class offerings, school-sponsored events, regulations, etc.). While most non-secular universities do not strictly require you to observe the same religion as practiced at the university in order to gain admission, it is important to note that this could be an important part of the community’s social and academic dynamic, and should be something you consider before applying/attending.
5. Academic Offerings: Most often, private schools will have a more narrow selection of course offerings to choose from, while public schools will have a wider variety of departments and degrees for students to choose from (usually stemming from the fact that public universities have a larger number of both students and staff/faculty, which leads to a wider array of majors that need to be made available to accommodate everyone’s needs). This is not necessarily a disadvantage of smaller-focused private universities, but should be something you carefully look into before applying. Do they have the program/area of study that you are interested in? If you end up wanting to switch majors, are there other options available for you to explore, or will you be locked into your initial choice? Do you see yourself sticking to one major, or do you think you might change your mind drastically once getting to college? Either way, you want to know what you’re getting into and know your options before enrolling in college.
Overall, the choice of whether to attend a public or private institution is entirely a personal decision: there is no “better” option across the board for everyone, but your specific circumstances and needs could dictate which one might be best for you. The best way to go about this decision is to do your research: start with these key differences, and see if anything sticks out to you. If you have a strong preference when it comes to tuition, class size, religious affiliation, curriculum offerings, etc., then that can help you narrow your search and begin making a list of helpful priorities. That way, you can avoid making quick judgements about what it means to attend a public or private institution, and really understand how that difference will impact your college experience overall.
Sarah is a Consultant on the Study Hall College Consulting Team. Sarah graduated from UC Berkeley in the Class of 2020 where she majored in Architecture and minored in Spanish Language and Literature. For more college application and essay tips, check out our Study Hall College Consulting website at shcollegeconsulting.com.