Private Versus Public Colleges

Question: Can you explain the difference between a private college and a public college? I’m confused about which one I should attend.

Public colleges are those that are largely supported by state funds. If you attend a public institution in your own state, you will get a break on tuitions costs, and–as a state resident–it’s usually easier for you be admitted, as well. However, if you attend a public college in ANOTHER state, you will probably not get those benefits (though some state institutions do have reciprocal agreements with other nearby states.)

Private colleges, on the other hand, are supported by tuition, endowment, and donations from alumni and friends. Usually they are more expensive than public colleges, but it does depend on the particular school. Also, private colleges often offer the best financial aid (see below). While attending a private school is reputed to translate into less red tape and more personal attention than you’ll find at the public counterparts, it’s important to look carefully at each individual college and to separate rumor from reality.

Many states have what are known as “flagship” universities. A flagship university is the main public college in the state, and it may be huge (e.g. Ohio State University, Penn State University, University of Texas). But often these states have many smaller public schools as well. Typically, flagship universities draw students from throughout the state as well as from other states and abroad. The smaller public colleges and universities tend to draw applicants from their immediate region are likely to have fewer out-of-state and international students. Often–although not always–the flagship universities are harder to get into than the other public schools in the state. Some states (e.g., New York, CA) do not have one main flagship college.

When making your target-college list, you probably don’t want to restrict it to EITHER private OR public schools. You should seek out all colleges that offer what you’re looking for: academic departments, location, size, extracurricular activities, religious affiliation (or lack thereof), as well as simply the right “feel.” The best way to determine if a school has this right “feel” is to visit campus when classes are in session and to try to talk (either in person or via e-mail) with current students and recent grads.

While cost may be an important consideration for you, don’t let that entirely govern your college choices … at least initially. Commonly, the more a college costs, the more money there is to give away. So, while lower tuition may make public colleges and universities attractive to you, don’t give up on the pricier private schools that may provide good financial aid. Ultimately, your final decision may have to be based on costs, but at this stage of the college exploration process, you don’t need to consider only the dough.