Private Colleges vs Public Universities: What’s the Difference?

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By Dianna Sawyer
Last updated on December 14, 2023

The difference between American public and private universities may not be obvious at first. If you are an international student planning to study in the US, here is what you need to know.

A few from behind four students as they walk down a marble hallway, discussing private colleges vs public as they prepare to apply to university.

With so many colleges and universities in the US, it can be challenging to figure out which one is right for you. It can be helpful to understand how they are all different — and one of the primary differences is whether they are public or private. 

The Difference Between American Public and Private Universities

The main difference between public and private universities and colleges in the United States is how they receive their funding. Public universities receive funding from the government, while private universities are funded by endowments (also known as large donations) and other private sources. This can make a big difference when it comes to tuition — students who live in the same state as a public university can receive in-state tuition, which will be lower than the tuition for a student coming from another state or country.

What Is a Public University?

In addition to receiving government funding, public universities tend to be big. Many public universities have large campuses and thousands of students. Because of in-state tuition, many public universities will have a large number of local students. Some public universities are even required to accept a certain percentage of students from their state in order to keep their funding, which means fewer spots are available for out-of-state or international students. This can make public universities highly competitive, even though there are more students overall.

What Is a Private University?

With more selective funding sources, private universities are generally smaller, which often means fewer students and smaller class sizes. This also means fewer degrees, majors, and professors. However, since private universities do not offer in-state tuition, they will often attract students from all over the country. Smaller private universities may provide more options for students looking to participate in athletics or fine arts, since there are fewer students competing for the same opportunities.

How to Choose Between a Public vs Private University

So, how do you decide? Ask yourself what is important to you when considering a college or university:

  • Size—if you like the idea of a big campus with many people, a public university may be a great choice. If you thrive in smaller environments, you might consider a private university or college.

  • Cost—no matter where you live, public universities are likely going to cost less. However, if cost is not a major concern, considering private universities allows you to look at a wider variety of schools.

  • Major—if you have a specific major, degree, or program in mind, make sure the private universities on your list offer it before applying. If they do not, consider that public universities will have more options and a greater number of faculty, as well as graduate programs.

While this overview should help you understand the differences between public and private universities, if you want to learn more about higher education in the US, check out our guide, The US Higher Education System Explained.

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