How do Private and State Universities Differ from Each Other?

Private and State Universities Differ

The short and simple answer? Private and state universities differ in terms of tuition, class sizes, freedom to levy more rules, and the social scene. Both types of schools may also offer a different number of programs, depending on a number of factors.

There are also differences in terms of oversight, selection of personnel, and accountability, but both university types share certain similarities.


A four-year course in public universities costs from as low as $9,000 to up to $35,000 in a private institution, exclusive of residence and other expenses. Public university students may be eligible for grants and aids that typically cover 58% of the costs.

Federal tax benefits and educational grants also cover a portion of the total tuition. Certain public universities offer free tuition and reduce total college education costs to living expenses and miscellaneous fees.

In terms of grants and aid, private universities typically get access to higher aid but in lower proportions compared to expenses. An average of 80% of private college undergraduates obtain state, federal, and institutional aid.

Number of degree programs

There are some private colleges that offer a narrow range of degree programs, depending on the field they specialize in.

For example, there are private art colleges and conservatories that focus on a single field (which can extend to related ones in a relatively limited way).

If you would want to focus on a specific field, then this would be a great option. When it comes to public universities, they usually offer a more diverse list of degree programs that you can choose from, specifically because they are looking to increase enrollment rates and accommodate a more diverse number of students.

Class sizes

Compared to private schools, which adhere to a specified student-to-teacher ratio (usually 10-15 students to 1 professor), public schools have bigger class sizes because of their larger enrollment rates. This may make for less one-on-one time with professors and may seem overwhelming for some students.

Since private schools offer a lower student-to-teacher ratio, teachers are able to focus on individual students and are able to monitor their performance in class effectively.

This may be one of the important points that students would consider in choosing between a public university and a private university, although some students may feel that this isn’t important at all (as long as there are teachers who can teach effectively in class).

Freedom to create more rules

Private universities are typically allowed to make their own rules, from wearing student uniforms to making religious classes mandatory. This right by private schools is protected by the First Amendment, specifically as it relates to the right to exercise religious freedom.

It is important to note, however, that the state can veto how a private school selects the admission policies. For instance, the landmark case of Runyon v. McCrary, 427 U.S. 160 (1976) prohibits a private school from denying admission due to race.

Meanwhile, in public universities, colleges need to get the approval of the higher education commission for both the state and federal levels to change their bylaws. If the school has a legal charter, legislation may be required for major changes in provision. The new policies normally don’t take effect immediately.

Social scene

Public schools have a far larger student population compared to private ones hence there are more opportunities for socialization.

However, because state colleges offer lower tuition fees to those who live within the state, it is expected that there is a higher number of students who live within the area (although there are students who may come from nearby cities).

Private schools typically have fewer students per class that generally come from families with higher incomes. That is why there is a sense of exclusivity often felt by students who come from lower to average-income households who may have been able to enter these schools via scholarships and other forms of sponsorship.

While both have clubs and groups, the culture is entirely different, especially in religious and sectarian schools. It is expected that students adhere to a strict set of rules, and administrators are usually keener on how this is observed, as opposed to the openness and tolerance in public schools.

Additionally, you would expect a more diverse population in private schools, because state residency isn’t one of the factors in accepting and catering to students. There will be a mix of enrollees from other states (possibly, end-to-end), and that would make for a more distinct combination of personalities, backgrounds, and opinions. You would just need to find your crowd, and everything will be alright.


Both public and private institutions need accreditation to operate. Public schools are both regionally and nationally accredited.

Private universities settle for national accreditation only and establish their own organizations, including geographical, religious, and specialized groups such as those focusing on STEM or Finance.

Due to the different oversight or regulatory bodies, private institutions typically try to address issues internally first. The process is more streamlined in public universities, whereby a report to the state Department of Education is submitted.

Selection of personnel

As the Constitution provides, and because they are run by organizations other than the state, private universities turn to their board of trustees for personnel selection.

For instance, in the Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC, the Supreme Court ruled that schools could appoint ministers as teachers or fire a minister without being threatened by a lawsuit.

In public universities, the tenure and entry of faculty members are largely meritocratic. A qualified academic or researcher is rarely turned away due to factors like religion or ideology.

The First Amendment to the Free Exercise of Religious Freedom does not apply to the state because, legally speaking, there is no state religion. The premise is that by law, no religious faction gets special privileges from the law.


All educational institutions are accountable to the state. Private universities, particularly those categorized as for-profit, report to the shareholders, and religious schools report to their ministers.

Some research universities also undergo stringent application processes for patents or publications to retain their “research university” status. Public universities abide by their charters, and taxpayers can take legal action against them for taxes that are wrongly allocated.

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