As you narrow down your college list, you may wonder whether you should concentrate on public or private schools.

Which one will be the least expensive, give you the best education, and provide the college experience you imagine? Plenty of assumptions surround both types of schools. For example, private colleges tend to have higher tuition and public state colleges tend to have larger class sizes. But when you look at the schools on your list, you’ll likely find that not all stereotypes are true. So how do you know which kind of college is best for you? You can start by looking at these five areas.

1. Tuition

If you’re applying to an in-state public school, your tuition 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 2022-2023 was $10,950. For out-of-state students attending public schools, it rose to $28,240. For students enrolled at private institutions, the tuition came in at $39,400. These costs do not include room and board. 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. Many schools also offer net-price calculators on their financial aid websites. This can give an indication of how much you might pay when financial aid is taken into consideration.

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 (over 60,000 undergraduate students in fall 2021). 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 34,000 in 2022, and New York University clocked in at almost 29,000. 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 have a large student population. 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.

In either case, get to know what the most common types of classes look like at the schools on your list, 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.

3. Your Intended Major

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.

“Don’t pick a college solely because it offers the major you think you want,” says Walder-Biesanz. Of course, there are exceptions (for example, performing arts students may choose a school specifically for its arts program) but in general, you should choose a school that has some flexibility for you to explore your potential major and career interests. You also might want to look at what the school offers in terms of career development, access to internships, and access to study abroad, if that’s something you would like.

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, it’s important to look ahead. 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. Extracurriculars and Campus Resources

From cheering on your college’s basketball team to joining a collegiate choir, your college decision may be influenced by how you imagine taking part in extracurricular activities. Keep in mind that a smaller college may offer more accessibility to explore different activities or even start your own clubs.

Resources may also be important. For example, if you have learning differences, you might want to make sure any school you’re looking at has robust support services. This is school dependent; bigger schools may have amazing resources or just offer baseline support. Similarly, smaller schools may be limited in how much support they offer or may be able to provide customized support. Ask questions to assess which schools fit your needs.

Bottom line: When it comes to private or public, there is no right or wrong answer. 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.

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