Difference between Private and Public Universities

Published on July 23, 2016

Is it time for you to enroll in a university but you don’t know which way to go? Asking around is an option, but you’ll only end up with an even list on either side of private versus public universities. So wouldn’t it be better to simply make up your mind on your own, depending on what kind of education you are looking for and what you want to do with the education you get there? Let’s see what the difference between private and public universities is.


Private vs Public Universities

A private university is a higher educational institution whose activity is not subsidized by the state and whose means of covering costs is that of collecting student tuitions, private contributions and funding, investments and donations. It is usually registered as a non-profit educational and research organization. By managing their own funds, these institutions get to decide by themselves on admission criteria and methods of evaluation, and they get to demand high performance levels from the students attending. They distinguish themselves with outstanding academic results and their professors are evaluated mainly on the basis of their research work and publications.

Tuition at a private university can be as high as $100,000 for four years of studies. Financial aid and merit scholarships can be granted under very strict conditions. Even so, professors raise the bar really high from the very beginning so students must keep up their work if they wish to remain enrolled or keep a scholarship. Class sizes are smaller, meaning that students can get more time with the professors. Numbers of enrollment can vary between 5,000 and 15,000 students a year. They must commit to full attendance. Also, the number of majors available is small and more specialized.

A public university is a state subsidized higher education institution. Students pay tuition fees ranging between $20,000 and $60,000 for four years of college and are encouraged more to attend in-state. Out-of-state students pay higher tuition. These institutions are very large and offer a very wide selection of majors with a broader approach. The Ohio State University, for example, has an enrollment of 42,000 students. This means that some courses can even have as many as 200 students so the chances of getting some one-on-one time with the professor are pretty low.

Every state has a public university that young people can attend. Public university attendance is more flexible as there are many commuters and part time students. Professors are evaluated based on their teaching.

Private University vs Public University

So what is the difference between private university and public university?

The main difference between private and public universities consists in the state subsidies. Since public institutions are funded by the state, they can afford to collect lower tuition fees as this money is not needed to cover all operational costs. This makes for the second difference between the two: private universities have considerably higher tuition. A public university tuition can range anywhere between $20,000 and $60,000 for four years, whereas a private institution may even cost $100,000 for the same period of time. The price tag also comes attached to higher performance levels, more demanding professors and prestige.

There is a public university in every state and this institution must cover mainly all majors. This accounts for their impressive size, their numerous enrollment processes and big classes. By contrast, private universities only enroll a limited number of students which they admit based on strict criteria and which they keep under thorough evaluation for the entire period of studies. Professors of smaller classes get time with the students and are more appreciated for the research work and publications which increase the prestige of the private university. This prestige allows them to get outside contributions and funding. A public university may have more majors, but the approach of these majors can be a bit broader, whereas a private institution has fewer yet more specialized options.

Comparison Chart

Private UniversityPublic University
Not subsidized by the stateSubsidized by the state
Higher tuition ($100,000)Lower tuition (ranges between $20,000 -$60,000)
Operational costs covered by tuition, donations and contributionsTuition does not need to cover all operational costs of the institution
Lower enrollment ratesHigher enrollment rates
Smaller class sizesClasses can have as much as 200 students
Smaller selection of majors but more specializedLarger selection of majors
Professors are evaluated on their research activityProfessors are evaluated based on their teaching
Full attendance is required; more students live on campus in residencesSome students are commuters and have part-time attendance