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To go private or public — that is the question.

Plenty of stereotypes surround both types of school: private colleges tend to have high tuition; public state colleges tend to have larger class sizes. But neither of these generalizations, much less any others, are universally true. So how do you know which kind of college is best for you? You can start by looking at these four areas.

1. The Tuition Bill

If you’re applying to an in-state public school, your tuition bill will likely be smaller. According to the College Board, the average cost for tuition and fees per year for an in-state student attending a public school during 2020–21 was $10,560. For out-of-state students attending public schools, it rose to $27,020. For students enrolled at private institutions, the bill came in at $37,650. These costs do not include room and board.

A private school may actually cost them less out of pocket than a public school.

The sticker price, however, isn’t necessarily what you’ll end up paying. Thanks to need- and merit-based aid, some students find that upon receiving their acceptances and award letter packages, a private school may actually cost them less out of pocket than a public school. As you evaluate college costs, remember to look at those beyond tuition, fees and room and board.

2. Class Size

On average, public schools tend to be bigger (they account for 90% of schools on U.S. News & World Report’s list of largest undergraduate student bodies). Some, like the University of Central Florida, have student bodies that can exceed the populations of large towns (nearly 60,000 students in fall 2019).  In such settings, it can be easy for students to feel lost. In comparison, not all private colleges are small. Brigham Young University is one of the largest private schools with an undergraduate enrollment of over 33,000 in 2021, and New York University clocked in at almost 27,000. But these are not the majority. There are many liberal arts colleges that boast enrollments between 1,000 and 3,000 undergraduate students.

It is also important to note that not all state schools are big. Just look at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, a public institution that had a student body of under 1,500 in 2021. Exceptions such as these make it all the more important to look at your college choices individually.

That’s why the school’s teaching style should match your learning style, says Jodi Walder-Biesanz, an independent education consultant with College Admission Coach LLC. “If you’re going to go to a large state college where your first two years will be in big lecture classes and you can learn well in a large lecture hall, that’s great,” she says. But what if you require more one-on-one attention? “Then that’s probably not a good choice for you,” surmises Walder-Biesanz. At smaller, private schools, the attention you get can be more focused and specialized. “You can seek out tutoring at a big state school, but it won’t come to you,” she says. That’s in contrast to small, private colleges where professors will often advise students who are struggling.

3. What You Want To Do

Your level of certainty about your desired major is another factor that can help inform your decision. Those who are eager to pursue a specialized degree or area of study might want to consider attending a small private school with specific or widely recognized expertise in a given field, while those who want to keep their options open might benefit from a larger public school with a greater breadth of programs. 

“If you are likely to change your major, don’t pick a college solely because it offers the major you think you want,” says Walder-Biesanz. “Let’s say you think you’d like to be an engineer but are not positive. You should not pick a small liberal arts college that has no engineering program, nor should you pick an engineering-only technical institute.”


4. Diversity

The student bodies of public universities tend to mirror the population of the states themselves, whether this be in relation to race, religion or socioeconomics. At private schools, however, admissions officers “have more flexibility to craft an entering class that matches the school’s unique priorities,” says Walder-Biesanz. For example, if a school is looking to attract first-generation students, it might create a program that gives financial assistance to this group.

When deciding on the school for you, foresight is paramount. Do you plan to stay within the same geographic area or at least the closest city? Or does the idea of moving 1,000 miles appeal to you? A diverse student body ultimately becomes a diverse alumni network with connections spanning far and wide, which may help justify the price of a private college or university.

5. So Which Is Better?

There is no right or wrong answer — just a right answer for you. The best thing you can do is write down your goals, think about what type of environment you would thrive in, schedule campus visits and go from there. 

The interview for this article was conducted in 2017.