Episode 22: Public or Private: What’s the Difference?
August 9, 2021
By some counts, there are about 4,000 colleges and universities in the U.S.
As a prospective student, you can slice and dice that list in a seemingly infinite number of ways.
You could sort by state, you could look at urban schools and rural ones, you could filter out schools that you consider too big or too small, you could look at what majors are offered, you could look at whether the school offers Division I, Division II or Division III athletics. The list goes on and on.
You could also look at public schools and private schools. Of those 4,000 colleges in the U.S., about 60% are private and 40% are public.
But what are the fundamental differences between private and public schools? Are there advantages and disadvantages to each? And how should students begin comparing the two?
In this episode of College Admissions Insider, we'll answer those questions and more. Our guest is Lauren Rambo '12, Bucknell’s senior assistant director of admissions and the University's southeastern regional representative.
If you have a question, comment or idea for a future episode, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Episode 22 Transcript
[00:00:05] BW: Hi, everyone, and welcome to a brand-new episode of College Admissions Insider, the podcast where we tackle the college search process one topic at a time. I'm Bryan Wendell from Bucknell University.
[00:00:16] BT: I’m Brooke Thames, also from Bucknell University, which is just one of the something like 4,000 colleges and universities in the US. You can really slice and dice that list in a seemingly infinite number of ways.
[00:00:27] BW: Right. You could sort by state. You could look at urban schools and rural schools. You could filter out schools that you consider to be too big or too small. You could look at what majors are offered. You could look at, I don't know, whether the school is Division I, Division II, Division III, the list really goes on and on.
[00:00:43] BT: You can also look at whether a school is public or private. Of those 4,000 colleges in the US about 60% are private and 40% are public. What are the fundamental differences between private and public schools? Are there advantages and disadvantages to each of those? How should students begin comparing the two?
[00:01:01] BW: Here to answer those questions and many more is Lauren Rambo. Lauren is Bucknell’s senior assistant director of Admissions and the University’s southeastern regional representative. She's also actually a repeat guest on College Admissions Insider. You can hear her on a very popular episode, which we called, “Inside the Mind of an Application Reader.” That was episode four. Let's say welcome back to the podcast to Lauren.
[00:01:24] LR: Thanks for having me. Very excited to be here again.
[00:01:27] BT: Lauren, to start off on the most basic level, what's the difference between a public university and a private one?
[00:01:33] LR: Yeah, at the most basic level, the difference is really where the institution gets its funding from. Public institutions receive funding from their state. So if we think about where Bucknell located at Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania State University receives a large portion of its funding from the state of Pennsylvania. It's a budget line in the state's budget. Private institutions receive their funding through other sources. It could be grants that they apply to, endowments, alumni donors — those are all different spaces where private universities would receive their funding from.
[00:02:08] BW: So let's go into some of the key differences and dive a little bit deeper. One thing that I know I hear from a lot of people is that public schools are, across the board, universally cheaper than private schools. Is that the case? Can we just make that blanket statement?
[00:02:23] LR: I hear that one a lot, too. It's not necessarily true. It could be but it might also not be. It depends on your family. It depends on maybe some other scholarship opportunities that you'll receive.
When you look at the cost of attendance of an institution, that sticker price, on paper, a public school is going to look cheaper because a lot of what they offer gets subsidized by that state budget. They don't necessarily have to charge as much. A private institution, tuition is a big part of where their money comes from to have all the different programs and events and things that happen on campus. On paper, they might seem they're charging more.
But those numbers aren't necessarily what every family pays. There are more scholarship opportunities potentially at a private institution, institutional grants, institutional scholarships, federal aid as well. While that sticker price may look like public institutions are always cheaper, you might actually receive more financial aid from a private institution that makes the cost comparable, if not less expensive at the private institution.
That would be particularly true for students who are looking at out-of-state public institutions, in-state public institutions, attend to charge students from their state less than they do from students outside of the state because the state taxpayers are helping to fund it. You're getting your tax dollars back if you go to that in-state public institution. If you're looking at a public institution from another state that you don't reside in, that looks a little costlier.
So you want to do a comparison using net price calculators, using sites MyinTuition, to get a sense of what that might actually cost your family before you rule any school out.
It might be that the public institution you're looking at is less expensive than the private institution even after financial aid and scholarships, but you can't know that just on a surface level.
[00:04:23] BW: Private institutions. They just charge the same. They don't care whether you're in-state or out-of-state. Right?
[00:04:28] LR: Exactly.
[00:04:29] BT: Alongside cost, perhaps the most important consideration is the academic offerings. Bucknell, which is a private school has more than 60 majors, but there are some giant public schools that have majors lists that are in the hundreds. So what should students and families watch out for there in taking that into consideration?
[00:04:48] LR: Yeah, absolutely. It's great to give yourself options when you're going to college. We know that high school students, college students change their mind. So the major that they might come in with might not be the major they leave with. I know somebody very close to me who went into college as a chemical engineer but graduated in classics and English. Students make drastic changes sometimes. You want to make sure, especially if you're undecided as to your major, you want to make sure you're going to have options, and that that institution can help you make changes as they come up.
A larger list of programs isn't necessarily more or less helpful to you. If you have specific programs that you're looking for. If you have really niche areas that you're looking at, you might want to start at institutions that have 200 or more majors if what you're looking for is really specific — to make sure that, if you're a larger school, if you have larger offerings, you're more likely to hit some of those really specific major interests.
Regardless of how many programs a school offers, if they don't have the program that you want, that's going to be an issue for you. First and foremost, make sure the school has the program that you're looking for, and that you find out what the flexibility is, and how that institution will help you move from program to program should the need arise.
[00:06:10] BW: Switching gears a little bit, many of these giant public universities, you consider them household names, right? They’re on ESPN every Saturday. People know their names, like the University of Texas, University of Florida, we could go on. But fewer people have heard of maybe the smaller private schools. In your experience, how important is that name recognition, both when we're building our list of which schools to consider, but then also after we graduate and start looking for a job?
[00:06:39] LR: Name recognition tends to be where students start their college search because it's something that you recognize. It's a school that you've heard of, somehow, somewhere. That's where a lot of students tend to start their college search. It shouldn't be the only place, the only resource that you use for that search, though. There are lots of options out there for you that maybe you just haven't heard of yet. To me, it's more important if the school is going to provide you the opportunities and the experiences that you want to take advantage of, rather than just that you've heard of the school before.
Like Brooke said at the beginning, there are nearly 4,000 colleges and universities in the US alone. You probably haven't heard of most of them. But if that's going to be the school that has the best opportunities for you, why not give it a shot, even if it's a new name to you and your family? Especially if it gets recommended to you by somebody that you trust, like a college counselor at your school or by another trusted source.
Even though that name recognition can be helpful in sports, or getting your foot in the door, or in just feeling comfortable with the school, that doesn't mean that it's going to be an issue when you're doing your job search. For most jobs that require a college degree, they really are just making sure you have that college degree and that it's from somewhere, it's from an accredited institution. Where exactly it was is not as important as what you did while you were there and how you present yourself when you are in those interviews and in that setting, that office setting.
If the best experience for you that gives you the chance to take advantage of opportunities is a smaller school that maybe you haven't heard of before, that doesn't mean it's any worse because you haven't heard of it before. We want to make sure that as students start looking at schools, you give it a chance, even if you haven't heard of that school before.
Public institutions tend to be larger. You mentioned University of Texas, University of Florida… As a southeast regional rep., I live in Florida right by Florida State. We see that school spirit everywhere. But there's something special about the school spirit at a small school too. You run into somebody from that smaller school, from that smaller alumni base, and the conversation you have goes well beyond just calling out the name of the school to the person we're also wearing the same t-shirt. So I think that's something that's special. If that's something you're looking for, you're going to be able to find it at both big schools, small schools, big names and schools you've never heard of before.
[00:09:14] BT: Yeah, yeah. I really like that insight. You mentioned there the fact that public schools might tend to be a little bit larger. So, looking at schools blanketly, it might seem like maybe smaller private schools are more selective versus the bigger schools. But is that true? Are public schools or private schools going to be more selective when building their class?
[00:09:32] LR: It depends. It depends on a couple of different things. In general, private schools can be more selective than public schools, especially when you look at what their main mission is and who they're meant to serve. Public institutions typically are meant to serve the students of that state, as well as any other students who are interested in the institution. Private institutions are set up to look at a more a selective student body. They get to choose what they want their student body to look like, to feel like, the size they want it to be. Again, private institutions tend to be smaller. It's not a hard and fast rule, but they tend to be smaller than public institutions. So they get to be more selective.
The reason I started off by saying it depends, is that for public institutions, they might have portions of their institution that are more selective than at a private school, say an honors college program, or nursing programs come to mind. Those tend to be pretty selective. So there are portions of public institutions that can be much more selective than at many private institutions. In general, private institutions have the choice to be more selective, given their size, given their mission, given who they're trying to serve.
[00:10:52] BW: If people wanted to compare to specific schools, the admit rates are usually right online where they could do that as well.
So, can we switch gears a little bit and talk about class size? I'm thinking of the large public university that I went to. It's been a while, but I would say maybe a third of my classes had 100, 200, 300 students in these giant lecture halls. Is it safe to say that, in general, private schools are going to have smaller class sizes, and more of that one to one interaction?
[00:11:19] LR: In general, yes. Because there's so many different schools out there, I'm sure we could come up with an example where that's not necessarily the case. But in general, yes, private institutions tend to be smaller, they tend to have more of a focus on that student experience and you have the opportunity for smaller classes. Now a large public institution, there are small classes that exist, you just might have to look a little closer for them, look a little more closely for those small class experiences. That's where things lik honors colleges really come into play. Those tend to almost promise small class sizes for their students.
Private institutions do tend to have smaller class sizes, more one on one interaction with your professor, a chance to really get to know that person, potentially having smaller graduate populations, although not always. There's a lot of different things that come into play there. If you're somebody who doesn't do well in a lecture hall and being lectured at, talked at, and then expected to come with questions later or find another way to ask questions, then you probably don't want to consider large schools in general, whether they are public or private. If class size is really important to you, looking at the size of the institution first and not worrying so much if it's public or private is going to be your best bet at having that small class, that more one on one interaction.
If you're at a large institution — again, public institutions tend to be on the larger side — you can still get that really close one on one interaction with your professors, with your peers. You just might have to put a little more effort into starting that relationship, going to office hours, speaking to the professor after classes over, being the one to suggest a study group. You just might have to be a little more proactive in order to build those one-on-one interactions. Whereas in a smaller institution, smaller class sizes, it's more likely that most of your professors will have a chance to get to know you in some form or fashion.
[00:13:19] BT: Speaking of interactions, and building relationships, I wonder how the size of an institution relates to geographic diversity. You mentioned that private schools charge the same amount whether you're in state or out of state, versus maybe a larger public institution that's a state institution. How does that translate to geographic diversity, that public versus private?
[00:13:37] LR: Yeah, because the more interaction you get with people from different parts of the country, different life experiences the better your college experiences, absolutely. I think you have the potential to see more geographic diversity at some private institutions, because they are recruiting heavily outside of just their state, outside of just their primary market, whereas a public institution might not have to worry about that so much because portions of their funding are coming from the state. They're meant to serve students in that state. We also go back to the name recognition a little bit because those big name schools have that name recognition. Students from all over the country, all over the world, are still willing to look at those institutions, visit those institutions, apply to those institutions.
So yes and no. It has the potential to have more geographic diversity, but you can also find some really great geographic diversity at out-of-state schools. It's a great question to ask admissions counselors if that's something that's important to students. What percentage of your students are from out of state, whether it's a public school or a private school? Especially if you're trying to go out of your state to get a different experience. I think of students I work with in the southeast who asked me about the weather in Pennsylvania, and they're excited about the potential of having a snowy season. Or if the industry that you're really interested in, like if you're really interested in big tech, maybe you want to be looking out in California at institutions, and you become part of that geographic diversity.
I think it's a good question for students to ask the admissions counselors at places they're interested in what that geographic diversity looks like. Big name schools tend to have big draw from all over, smaller schools might have a more regional draw. It really just depends on the institution and what their mission is and what their recruiting style is. Really a good question to ask as you're visiting schools, as you're researching schools, and to ask yourself if that's something that's important to you.
[00:15:39] BW: Very interesting. Those name brand schools also have a larger network of alumni as well. I mean, it makes sense. If you're graduating 10,000 students, then you're putting that many alumni out into the world every year. Those are people that could potentially offer you a job. They see that the name on your resume under education is the same as the diploma on their wall. Is that something that students should really consider when looking at public versus private institutions? How important is that size of alumni network?
[00:16:09] LR: I would change it from the size of the alumni network to the activity of the alumni network. How active are they? How engaged are they still in the institution? What benefits do you get as a current student and as a new alum from your alumni network? Because if you have a large alumni base because the school graduates 10,000 students a year but they're not doing anything, that doesn't help you as much as a small alumni network that's intensely involved in helping students on their journey.
I would encourage students to think of it more from a perspective of what do those alumni connections lead to, as opposed to just blanketly how many there are. Because if you have a strongly connected alumni network, those people, even if they're not in the exact job that you want, or the location that you want, or the exact industry, they probably know somebody who is or you have faculty who have built close relationships with their students and have maintained those connections, and they can reach out to a former students to connect you within the industry you're interested in.
I think you want to find that balance between quantity and quality. You want to have a lot of options for different industries, for different places where you can end up after you graduate. If those alumni aren't willing to talk to you as an undergraduate student, are you really reaping a benefit there? You can ask career development centers, you can ask admissions counselors, tour guides, you can ask alumni relations offices at different institutions what those connection opportunities are for you, as a prospective student, as a current student, and as a new graduate? I think that will give you a better sense of the benefit you get from a network as opposed to just the number of people who are involved in that network.
[00:17:56] BT: On the opposite side of that coin too, you never know who's going to be reading your application for an internship or a job. So how about the prestige factor? Given the selectivity of private schools, especially those that are the name brand that are highly recognizable, does that translate into schools that look more impressive on a resume?
[00:18:14] LR: That's, that's really tough question, because I want to say no, right? It should be all about what your experience is there. But there's a potential that that name recognition does spark a conversation. That name recognition might give a first impression, but you have to be able to back it up. I really think it goes back to more of what your experiences have been. If you have somebody who goes to a recognizable school and doesn't do anything while they're there, and you go to a school that might have a smaller name reach but you were involved with research, and you have this really close relationship with a faculty member who writes a stellar reference letter for you, and you got involved in three to four different clubs, you're going to have more things to talk about in those interviews.
When you pick a school and you're picking what happens next, when you're graduating, putting your best foot forward is always the best option. It's always what's going to translate into actual phone interviews, or in-person interviews. What did you do with your time there is going to be the most important attribute. Most jobs that are looking for a college-educated individual are really just looking to make sure that you have that degree that they've asked for. Beyond that, it might change the questions that they ask you and the getting to know you part, but it shouldn't make that big of a difference in whether you get the job or not. What you did with your time there and how you back that up, that's what's going to make the difference, whereas big name recognition might just be big name recognition. The person reads the resume and says, “Oh, this school,” but then looks at the rest of your resume too. You have to remember that what you've done with your time is what's going to be the most important and the most impressive part of your resume.
[00:20:05] BW: Yeah, that first icebreaker question might be, “Hey, oh, you went to this school,” but then you have to like back it up with those experiences that you had. You're saying, find somewhere where you can get those experiences as an undergrad that you really want on your resume for those second, third, fourth interview questions, the ones that really count. That's such great advice.
Finally, how much weight should this public versus private decision have if all else was equal? Let's say that you're comparing an out-of-state school, a public institution and a private institution, and it's pretty much the same, right? Like, the cost that you're going to pay is the same after financial aid and scholarships, academics are the same, maybe even the location is similar. I mean, what's your advice for a student who says, “It's a coin toss for me. What should I do, Lauren? Help me.”
[00:20:51] LR: You have to do what's best for you. At the end of the day, if a school is wanting to offer you the educational experience, the finance that you need, the opportunities that you're looking for, where they get their funding isn't going to matter. Do your research on the institution, figure out at strengths, why you're interested in that school. What it is that draws you there? Can they help you achieve what you're looking to get out of college? If the answer is yes to all of those questions, that's what matters most.
Public versus private, big versus small, everyone's going to have different priorities, different preferences, different opportunities at all different types of schools. What matters the most is that it is the school that's going to offer you the most. Whatever it is you're looking to get out of your college experience really has to be there in some form or fashion at the institution you ultimately choose. If you do that, if you think about that in your process, you're going to end up at a place that will help you be successful not only at college, but through college and post-college. That's what really mattered in this process. It's easy to get hung up on big name, small name, big school, little school, private school, where all my friends are going — but it has to, at the end of the day, be what's the best match for your educational needs, your personal needs, your financial needs in this process.
[00:22:12] BT: Yeah, that's great advice. Well, I think that's an awesome place to leave it for this episode. Lauren, thanks so much for hopping on and helping us get a better idea of what private schools look like versus public schools.
[00:22:22] LR: Of course. Thanks for having me.
[00:22:24] BW: Thanks to our listeners for being the whole reason we do this podcast in the first place. If you enjoyed this episode, we'd love for you to share, rate and subscribe.
[00:22:32] BT: We'll be back with another episode of College Admissions Insider in two weeks. In the meantime, send your questions, comments and episode ideas to email@example.com. That email is your direct line to our podcast team.
[00:22:44] BW: Finally, you can follow Bucknell on all the socials. We're @BucknellU on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. You should also check out the student-run Instagram account that's @iamraybucknell. That's a really good follow. You can find all those links in the show notes.
[00:23:00] BT: Thanks for listening. See you next time.