When selecting a school the amount of variables to consider can be overwhelming, and researching those differences can be time consuming. One of the categories to consider when narrowing search results is whether to attend a private or public institution. Explore this chart to learn more about the differences between public and private universities.






The name of the category alone lends itself to the feeling of exclusivity. Private universities are often among the oldest in the nation and carry with them prestigious reputations. Ivy League schools fall within the private sector.

Although it is a myth that public schools are less rigorous, and many do in fact have reputations that rival their private competitors, some people continue to hold perceptions that private schools are more prestigious than public schools overall.


Following the idea of exclusivity, admission to private universities can be extremely selective and competitive. In short, it may be more difficult to get into a private college.

Admissions for public schools are often more lenient to attract locals from around the home state to build large amounts enrollment numbers, often in the tens of thousands.


A close-knit student community is often a selling point for students looking into a private university. Relationships with professors and peers tend to be closer and more readily available.

A public institution tends to be better for those who are more independent and prefer a less hands on approach. The teacher to student ratio tends to be much higher with less individual attention available.


Based on more rigorous admissions policies, private schools maintain smaller enrollment numbers, leading to low maximum class sizes. Typically there are fewer teaching assistants instructing classes and more professors invested in student learning outcomes. 

Public schools, especially “flagship” universities, or main colleges of the residing state, often have very high student populations. Pennsylvania State for example has over 45,000 students. High enrollment numbers can also yield large class sizes, even in the hundreds for some courses.

Breadth of Degrees

Often as a result of small student populations, private schools may offer less degree choices for students. Some private universities even limit the students’ options to a few study areas to maintain their reputations of being experts in designated fields.

Students can often find a much wider range of degree options at public schools because of their high population and operational support. Often these large institutions offer a full range of degree levels including bachelors, masters and doctorates.

Tuition Cost

Traditionally the cost for tuition in the private sector is significantly higher for students. The average cost of attendance for the 2013-2014 school year is just over $40,000. Private institutions also tend to maintain a consistent tuition rate, no matter the student’s home state. 

Tuition costs are more affordable for students in the public sector. The average cost of attendance for the 2013-2014 school year for in state residents reported is about $18,000. Students from outside states may not receive all the financial benefits as those residing in the area.


Private colleges receive support from multiple sources including tuition, endowment and community donations.

Public colleges rely heavily on state funds, including those that come from state taxes, which is why tuition is often less for residents.

Cultural Diversity

Since private universities do not often favor geographic locals, they tend to attract a wider range of students with different cultural backgrounds. They typically welcome applicants from states beyond their own and even encourage international students who have different perspectives and heritage.  

Because many public schools tend to draw students from surrounding areas by providing benefits such as priority admissions and financial breaks, demographics tend to be less diverse. Students from out of the state and country are welcome of course, but often at a higher cost and in lower percentages.


In some cases it may be difficult to transfer previously completed classes in or out of the university to another school due to various calculation methods. However, some schools in this sector offer alternative evaluations for admission such as interviews, recommendations and writing samples, providing flexibility for students.

Transferring from community colleges to local state universities is a common degree completion pathway for many students. Universities in this category often yield high transfer rates because common state standards that are recognized across the public school systems, allowing students to seamlessly transfer credits without losing recognition of previous classes.

Graduation Rates

Although many universities calculate their success rates differently, generally private universities have higher 4-year graduation rates. This may be influenced by the low enrollment numbers and student to staff support ratio that private schools offer.

Generally speaking public schools have lower 4-year graduation rates than private. This is not to say students don’t graduate, it simply may take longer. One reason is that large class sizes may make it difficult for students to enroll in the courses they need to graduate on schedule.

1 http://www.franklin.edu/blog/non-profit-vs-for-profit-colleges-what-you-need-to-know/
2  http://www.ncsl.org/research/education/for-profit-colleges-and-universities.aspx
3  http://forprofitu.org/fact-sheet/
4  http://nces.ed.gov/datalab/tableslibrary/viewtable.aspx?tableid=7512