When high school students are trying to decide on which colleges to apply to, there are many factors to take into account. The school’s academic reputation, selectivity, size, job placement rate, and location are all important. One of the other factors that often comes up is whether the school is public or private. And while this can make a significant difference, it’s often negligible. Knowing the differences between public and private schools can be helpful, so I thought I’d lay out a few here.
One of the first differences that comes to mind is that many private schools are religiously affiliated, where as public schools are secular. This, like most other factors, can be either significant or pretty trivial. It depends on the particular university. My university, for example, was affiliated with the Catholic church. All students are required to take three theology courses (not all of them are necessarily Catholic- or even Christian-focused, however). I know of other religiously affiliated colleges that only require one or two theological courses, and I’m sure there are some that have no such requirements. On the other hand, there are some very conservative schools that have pretty strict requirements based on the tenets of their particular religion. So while this seems like it might be a big deal, it usually isn’t, and depends very much on the school.
Another common question about public and private schools is the cost. Public universities are often less expensive than private ones. There are some very expensive public colleges, but the most expensive will always be private. This is because the public schools receive state funding (this is why they are called “public”). One thing to keep in mind when comparing tuition costs is that public colleges usually have in-state and out-of-state tuition, so you may end up paying quite a bit more if you go to a public university in a state other than the one in which you live.
On the other hand, private colleges usually give away many more scholarships. There are quite a few schools that give at least some money to every incoming freshman, so the listed tuition cost can be a bit deceiving. This is a good thing to talk about with an admissions counselor—they have the best answers to questions like this one.
While most public universities are liberal arts schools and offer a great deal of education options, some private schools are more specialized. There are schools that focus on foreign languages, business, music, art, and just about any other field. And while many public schools have very strong programs in one of these areas, they’re often more focused on providing a well-rounded education. So if you know exactly what you plan on doing, you may want to consider a highly specialized private college.
Both public and private schools have advantages and disadvantages, so don’t limit yourself to one or the other when you’re choosing colleges to apply to. Every school has its merits and its downfalls—base your decisions on these instead, and you’ll end up at the right school.
As always, if you have any questions, comments or funny stories you'd like me to share about college or the blog, email me at email@example.com