Student Perspective: Public or Private College?

Empowerly Team
Empowerly Team

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The college admissions season for this year is finally over. [To the class of 2017, congratulations! Good luck in your future endeavors your college experience will surely bring.] But for many, as one college admissions’ seasons ends, another one begins. Many of you reading this may be in the very beginning stages of your own college application journey. Visiting colleges, researching different schools, and finding out what you want to do in the future; these are all part of the first few stages of choosing where you want to spend your next four years. One of the most important questions you might face is whether to opt for public or private college.

Maybe you’ve already started thinking about your college list. If so, one question that pops up for seniors is whether they should attend a public or private college. Which one is better? What are the biggest differences between the two? There are a lot of articles and resources about this topic; as a current UC Berkeley student, I’ll be including my perspective on being in a public university.


According to the US Department of Education, the average tuition, fees, room and board were estimated to be $16,188 at public institutions, $41,970 at private nonprofit institutions, and $23,372 at private for-profit institutions for the 2014-15 academic year. This is just the average costs, but if you talk to many attending private universities, they’ll probably tell you they’re paying a higher cost – closer to $50,000 or $60,000 a year. With just average costs alone, between public institutions and private nonprofit institutions, that’s already a difference over $20,000. A big difference. 

However, this difference in tuition is for a good reason. Public schools are often subsidized by the state government, whereas private institutions are not. Thus, private schools rely solely on tuition and private contributions to cover any costs they may incur, including professors’ salaries, school resources, etc. They need a high tuition cost to operate. 

It is worth mentioning, however, the difference between attending a public college when you are an in-state resident and when you are an out-of-state resident. As someone who attends an out-of-state public university herself, I can tell you firsthand that I pay a very high tuition – almost the same as if I had attended a private university. It’s important to keep in mind that every student’s situation is different, and things such as state residence, scholarships, and financial aid may change the tuition costs. It may just end up that the cost-of-attendance for a public and private will be the same due to the student’s circumstances. But it is true that on average, public institutions tend to cost significantly less than their private counterparts.

Quality of Education

Regardless of where they attended, in the first three months of 2013, the unemployment rate for high school graduates was twice as high as those holding a bachelor’s degree was (according to the US Bureau of Labor). Contrary to popular belief, a public education is not necessarily inferior to a private one. College is what you make of it, and whether your school is private or public will most likely not directly affect your quality of education.


Public schools are very large. UC Berkeley, UCLA and University of Michigan Ann Arbor each had about 30,000 undergrads this past fall. Private universities like Princeton, Stanford, and Harvard only have about 6,000 or so undergraduates.

Which is better for me, large or small school?

There are pros and cons to this discrepancy. On one hand, attending a large school allows you to meet many people. You can never know everyone on campus, and there’s always so much opportunity to learn and grow from the endless amount of people around you. The large number of undergrads, undoubtedly, also brings a large amount of diversity. With so many people around all the time, there is truly never a boring moment on campus.

On the other hand, it is easy to feel de-individualized and lost amongst the crowd. The phrase, “you can never know everyone on campus,” can scare many, and leads to people feeling “alone in a crowd.” One can easily feel overwhelmed by all the different people, clubs, and professors. Class sizes may be too big to befriend anyone or even get close to your professor, and there probably will be less individual attention given to you as opposed to at a private school.

How can this help me?

Speaking from my own experience, sometimes it is a scary to know I am only one of thousands of undergraduate students. I often feel frustrated by the lack of attention given to me, either by professors or the university itself. However, the opportunity that surrounds me truly knows no bounds. Whether it’s for personal or professional growth, I am comforted by the fact that there are so many people to help me, so many life-changing people I haven’t met, and so many things I have yet to discover. You’ll find that even though enrollment size is so large, the campus can feel pretty small when you know a few people. And just at any college, public or private, joining clubs and being proactive is the best way to meet and befriend people. The large enrollment size may just mean a larger pool of interests and clubs to choose from.

The Final Verdict: Public or Private College?

When picking your home for the next four years, it’s important to answer several questions. How much do I want to pay for my education? What kind of environment do I want to be in, both socially and academically? Undoubtedly, public and private schools offer different answers to these questions. To summarize, on average public schools tend to be less expensive and have thousands more people. Private schools, on average, tend to cost more and have thousands less people. Both types offer their students the best education they can.

Unfortunately, there really is no final verdict. Every person is different, and thus, has different needs, goals, and environments they want to achieve these goals. In the end, it is up to you. Decide what you want your future to be first, and with these facts in mind, figure out the best way for you to get there.

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