What’s the Difference between a Public and a Private University or College

People are sometimes confused about the various types of higher education institutions, particularly in the United States where regulations may vary from state to state. Even the term “college” and “university” may mean different things to different people, even if various accrediting bodies and government departments make recommendations for proper terminology. Despite the fact that there are differences between public and private institutions, there are certainly some “gray” areas that cause the differences to blur in certain situations. Here are a few thoughts on the differences between a public and a private university or college.


In general terms, a public college or university is funded directly by the state. Depending on the arrangement between the state and the school, the state will give the school a certain amount of money for each student that is enrolled on the campus. This money largely subsidizes the programs and services provide by the school. The students may still have to pay tuition and fees, but it is often a much smaller part of overall cost required to run the school. Since the institution is “public”, there are also rules that dictate what can and cannot be taught, and what sorts of ideologies may be presented in particular contexts.


The private school is often an independent entity, which either functions as an singular campus, or is perhaps owned by a parent corporation in the case of a for-profit private college. Private colleges cannot do anything they want, but they are much more free in terms of what can be taught. The private institution, in general terms, is not funded directly by the state. Rather, private schools are often dependent on higher tuition in order to maintain their existence, unless they have large endowment funds that allow them to fund parts of their budget. The irony of private schools is that people will often complain about the high tuition but not realize that public school tuition would probably be higher if the students had to bear the actual cost of running the public institution.

Similarities and differences

Both private and public institutions have accrediting bodies, and sometimes they are the same group in a certain area. In addition, the government in many cases technically funds both private and public colleges. The subtle difference is that public schools get direct funding while private schools get government funding via the students that apply for loans and grants. In addition, both public and private schools have similarities in terms of structure, faculty, programs, and outcomes. For some people, public versus private just “feels” different, but that state of mind can only be explained by the individual. This is why both private and public institutions can be very different and yet share the names of college or university.