The main difference between private colleges and public universities is how they are funded. Public colleges receive state funding to help offset costs. Private colleges receive no state funding and solely rely on private donors and tuition costs to keep their doors open. Although funding is the main differentiating factor, private colleges differ from public colleges in many other ways.
Private College Tuition Costs
Private colleges rely heavily on tuition costs to fund the college’s expenses, including faculty salaries. If you attend a private college, expect to pay over three times more on average. For the 2016-2017 academic year, private nonprofit four-year colleges charged an average tuition of $33,480. Public four-year colleges only charged $9,650 for in-state students and $24,930 for out-of-state students.
Why do public universities cost so much less? Students at these colleges pay subsidized tuition rates. State funding offsets tuition costs, so their tuition costs do not have to cover the college’s expenses. This makes public colleges more affordable—at least based on sticker price.
Private College Scholarship Opportunities
Private colleges might have a higher sticker price, but they provide more students with scholarship-based aid than public colleges. On average, private colleges discount tuition by around 49%. In 2017, private colleges offered 70% of students an average of $15,983 in scholarships. That same year, public colleges awarded 54% of students with scholarships averaging just $7,940.
Their generous scholarship offerings make private colleges competitive with public universities. In some cases, a private college can even end up costing significantly less than a public university.
Private College Tuition Increases Debt Burden
Right now, around 44 million borrowers owe over $1.48 trillion in student loan debt. Given the higher tuition costs, students at private colleges will add more to this number on average than students at a public college. In 2012, roughly 75% of private college graduates took out loans while only 66% of public college graduates did. These graduates have an average debt load of $32,300 and $25,550 respectively.
If you are considering attending a private college, do not let these statistics scare you. As long as you stay open to shopping around, it is possible to attend a private college without going into that much debt.
Private School Graduation Rates Exceed Public Schools
Although you may owe more for a private college education, you will have a better shot at earning your degree. For students who started a four-year college in 2009, the six-year graduation rate was 66% at private non-profit universities, 23% at private for-profit universities, and 59% at public universities.
When looking at two-year colleges’ graduation rates, private colleges pull further ahead. U.S. Department of Education research shows that private non-profits have a 56% three-year graduation rate while public colleges only have a 22% graduation rate. Private for-profits offer an even higher rate of 60%.
Annual Salary and Employment Expectations
Expect to earn a little more post-graduation if you attend a private college. In 2016, private college graduates had a mean starting salary of $51,539. Public college graduates earned $47,974—about $3,500 less. Plus, within six months of graduation, 16% of public college graduates were still looking for a job while only 7% of private college graduates were. This data from the National Association of Colleges and Employers suggests that private schools prepare students better for life immediately following graduation.
Size and Academic Offerings
Private colleges tend to have much fewer students than public colleges. You will find small public colleges, like Delaware State University (4,012), and large private colleges, like Liberty University (49,863), but that is not the norm.
Due to their smaller size, private colleges typically offer fewer majors and courses than public colleges. Many specialize in the liberal arts, some focus solely on the sciences, and others on the arts. Both public and private colleges will prepare you for a career or graduate school, but it really depends on what you want to study. Plus, attending a private college, especially one with a narrow academic focus, limits your options if you want to switch majors or enter college undeclared.
Class Size and Learning
The majority of private colleges offer a lower student-faculty ratio. This means smaller class sizes, fewer lectures, and more one-on-one faculty attention. You will have more opportunities to learn directly from your professor, interact with your peers, and engage in intense classroom discussions.
At public schools, you will find large lecture halls and learn less from your professors. Public colleges do have smaller classes, but these are for more specific upper-level courses. Many large public universities also hire upper-level bachelor’s, graduate, or doctorate students to teach lower-level courses. These individuals do not have the same knowledge that a professor offers.
If interactive or hands-on learning is how you learn best, a smaller private college may be right for you.
Compared to public colleges, private colleges admit more out-of-state students. Public colleges receive state funding, so they offer tuition breaks to in-state students. In some cases, these breaks save students an average of $8,990 per semester. It makes sense then that students would choose an in-state public college. Some private colleges offer in-state incentives, but not nearly as great.
Any college with a religious affiliation or mission is a private college. But, not all private colleges are religious colleges. Since they do not receive state funding, a private college can legally declare a religious affiliation or have a religious-inspired mission. In the U.S., there are over 900 religiously affiliated and accredited colleges and universities.
Deciding if a Private College is Right for You
Take some time to consider whether a private college is right for you. Think about how you learn best, whether religious affiliation is important to you, and your thoughts on the statistics presented above. Remember, you can always find an affordable option if you decide you want to attend a private college.
To find helpful information about a specific college, use The College Scorecard. You type in the college’s name, and it displays helpful statistics. You will find information on tuition costs, the percentage of students receiving scholarships or grants, the four-year graduation rate, and the total annual cost after financial aid based on family income. Choosing a college is a big decision, so make sure you are making an educated one.