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Public (State) university vs Private college: Differences, pros and cons

While settling on the name of a college/school to pursue your higher education from, the one thing that bugs most students to no end is whether to opt for a public university or a private college. This fundamental question has troubled both former and current students and it will continue to stress out prospective applicants as well. Students looking to secure admission in their choice of college feel the need to find out the status of their favoured school.

But, before we go any further stating the difference between the two, here are some names that will give an insight into the terms. Some of the most reputed public universities in the world are University of California, Berkeley, University of Virginia, The College of William and Mary, University of Illinois, in the US; University of Oxford, King’s College London, London School of Economics and Political Science, University of Paris, in Europe; CEIBS, Indian Institute of Technology, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Peking University, University of Tokyo, Seoul National University in Asia, and the like.

As for private colleges, the list is equally comprehensive. Stanford University, Princeton University, Cornell University, Yale University, Haverford College, Washington and Lee University, Carleton College in the US; University of Buckingham, Regent’s College, Frankfurt School of Finance and Management in Europe; Pohang University of Science and Technology, Osaka University of Commerce, in Asia among others.

What is the difference between state and public universities?

While most of them offer specialized degrees, there are indeed some things which make them stand apart from each other. There are pros and cons for both. Here are some of them:


Differences in Funding

Google the topic and the first and foremost difference stated is in the funding. Public universities are funded by respective state governments and private universities are not. The latter get money from tuition fee, business houses and alumni.

That’s also one reason why private universities value their alumni so much more. Since expenses are borne by governments for public universities, the students can expect a subsidized fee structure.

However, some universities in the US may charge less from local students alone, and the same privilege may not be extended to students coming in from outside the particular state.

Number of courses offered

State funded universities generally have more programs to offer than a private university, at least a majority of them. That may have something to do with the number of scholars these can accommodate.

To give a rough figure, the former can accommodate as many as 40,000 students at a time (University of Washington had more than 44,000 students in 2014), while the latter can have somewhere around 20,000 (Harvard University had about 21,000overall student strength in 2014).

The huge student population comes in looking for various programs which they can find easily in a bigger set up. The number of programs offered is enough to satiate them.

A private college on the other hand, can offer a limited number of programs, but it has the advantage of paying extensive and exclusive attention owing to the limited number. Some of the private colleges may or may not offer a comprehensive, postgraduate study program. A public university on the other hand can offer options in this space, but you will have to check if the program fulfills your expectations of quality and content.


Size of the university

A public university has a huge class size and there are less chances of knowing all fellow students personally or even by name. On the other hand, space constraint could be one of the reasons why class sizes are smaller in a private set up.

But, for the same reason, one can expect more personalized attention from the faculty, along with better interaction and bonding with fellow classmates. It’s a ‘close-knit community’ which means better relations with the class even beyond school when they are well established in their respective fields.

One would expect diversity of students in a big public university. On the contrary, a private college with a limited student acceptability would represent more nationalities, communities and ethnicities. They have limited seats and want to showcase more geographical diversity, as against a public university which has usually more students from that particular state.

Public or Private: Which one should you choose?

There can be no straight forward answer to this one. A private college may cost more, but there is no guarantee that it will have the best academic structure. Similarly, a public university can cost less comparatively, yet it may not have the best placement record.

The key then would be to go by other parameters.

Shortlist some of the institutes from both the segments, jot down what is important for you in terms of the department, program it offers, faculty it has, guest lecturers from the industry it attracts, alumni, and of course fee. Some of the public universities may also offer some good financial aid. You’d never know if you strike out their names from the list.

A private university can also have a good name in the industry, but it may not have the kind of program structure you are looking for. Meeting current and old students will give a better insight into the program and the university itself.

Does the public vs public college debate matter at all?

By now, you would have figured out the basic difference between the two. Now, how crucial or non-crucial it is to opt for one over the other? The reputation of a public and private university can vary from country to country. Most European and American universities wouldn’t have any such distinction. Both can rank higher or lower on their global or national rankings.

As an international student, you will be obviously shelling out a lot more than the local students. Your expenses will almost double up considering that you’d have to pay for your stay, food, transport and the like in a foreign currency.

So, do the math and see how much can you stretch yourself financially with the fee structure at both public and private colleges. You can always try for scholarships to reduce your cost of study.

Yet, focus on the program first and how it fits in to your long term plans.

Further reading:
Difference between In-state vs Out-of-state Tuition
State (Public) university vs Private college: Which is better?

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Sameer Kamat
About Sameer Kamat
Founder of MBA Crystal Ball. Author of Beyond The MBA Hype & Business Doctors. Here's more about me. Follow me on: Instagram | Linkedin | Youtube

6 thoughts on “Public (State) university vs Private college: Differences, pros and cons”

  1. Hi, This is Madhav Tennety. I am a native of Visakhapatnam. I had finished my masters in Commerce ( I have a work experience of 8 years. I started working when I was doing my graduation. This 8 years work experience includes my 2 years experience when i was in graduation, after graduation i have 6 years experience. MBA is my dream which was eagerly waiting to do work experience. Can anyone suggest me for which programee i need to go for ??? Will 2 years of MBA is good with CAT or Exceutive MBA is good with GMAT. Please guide me on this. Also, I am financially not that rich. If i am been selected, will i get bank loans ?? My experience will be added anthoer 1 or 2 years by the start MBA, so it becomes around 7 or 8 years. Please help me guiding which universities would the best for placements and studies.

  2. Hi,

    I am an MBA from IIM Lucknow(2015 pass out) currently working in E commerce sector. Prior to this, I have done B Arch from NIT Patna (8.09/10). I am looking for a foreign MBA preferably from top ten universities to experience an international exposure and kick in the career path. Which programs in terms of college and duration (one yr vs two yr) would be a right choice for me. Please advice.

  3. i am a 12 pass out i want to do MBA in international business after my graduation in english (hons) should i prepare for gmat or cat totaly confused

  4. @Madhav: CAT MBA programs are out of quesion at this stage, given your experience level. You can look at one year MBA programs that are cheaper than their 2 year counterparts. They’ll also have more students in the class with higher experience levels.

    @Vishwa: This article should help you:

    @Aditi: It may be better for you to focus on your graduation for now, and not get stressed out about what to do after that. Ensure that you have good academic grades. That will count when you are applying for the next degree.

  5. Hi I am Arvind Krishnan I have been working in l&t construction from last 6 months . I’m thinking of working for 2 years and looking for MBA in Canada or USA , my interest is USA , but financially that’s very costly, will I get the good job opportunities in Canada or should I take some risk and hope my ROI will b recieved soon after my MBA in USA.btw I’m average in studies but I have 8.7cgpa in my graduation (bcom)


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