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Is There a Big Difference Between Private and Public College?

By Michael O’Malley

Private vs Public College: What’s The Difference?

When looking for the right college to attend, parents and their high school students need to understand distinctions in accessibility and affordability of public versus private institutions.

Generally, the distinctions aren’t glaring. But understanding what each sector offers and requires will help you find the best fit for your teen.

Public colleges and universities are largely funded by state and local taxes, so the cost for in-state students is lower. Many also give in-state students preference over out-of-state students in the admissions process.

Though both public and private schools offer scholarships and financial aid, private schools frequently offer the bigger bucks, which helps to offset their shockingly high tuitions. Almost no one pays the sticker price on a private school, thanks to private donations and endowments.

Be aware, though, about the two kinds of private schools—nonprofit and for-profit. Recent news stories have cast some for-profits in a bad light, exposing predatory tactics that strap students with huge debts.

But, growing student debt is hardly exclusive to the private-for-profit sector. Fifty-seven percent of public, four-year college graduates in 2012 carried an average $25,000 in debt, according to The College Board, a non-profit group that helps college-bound students. That same year, 65 percent of private, non-profit, four-year college graduates averaged $29,900 in debt.

This debt, coupled with a struggling national economy, makes parents and students hesitant about signing papers for bank loans.

“Families are taking a harder look at lowering costs,” says Vern Granger, Interim Vice President for Strategic Enrollment Planning at The Ohio State University. “More and more are looking at community colleges for affordability.”

Public vs. Private Universities: Finding Affordable Schools

In addition to tuition, students and parents also need to account for student fees, room and board, books and supplies, travel and transportation, and the cost of living for the school’s region.

They also should consider non-economic issues, such as class size, ratio of faculty and advisors to students, classroom facilities, library services, computer labs, and campus safety. Neither public nor private consistently outshines the other in any of these areas.

Admission requirements and processes vary among public and private schools. However, Lisa Sohmer, Director of College Counseling at Garden School, a private high school in New York City, notes that private universities tend to weigh more than just test scores and grades of an applicant.

“The private schools usually ask for more stuff: more essays, more letters of recommendation,” Sohmer says. “They process fewer applications, so they have more time and tend to be more holistic.”

According to Sohmer, huge universities, like Penn State, don’t want to bother with letters of recommendation. However, Ohio State’s Granger said that OSU, also a huge public school, does consider letters and other criteria.

“These considerations are more institutional, not a public-private thing,” he says. “Not all public schools are the same. And, the same goes for private.”

Both Granger and Sohmer note that more and more students—including an influx of international students—are enrolling in colleges these days, stiffening admissions’ requirements. Back in the early 1990s, The Ohio State University had open enrollment, but no longer. Still, there are plenty of colleges for everyone.

“Most colleges take more than 50 percent of their applicants,” Sohmer says. “People have to be conscious about which school would make a good fit. And when you take out the size and cost between public and private, there’s not much difference. Once a student is there, it feels like college.”