Bigger, but is it better? 

Bethany Montgomery, Staff Writer

When thinking about the implications of a private university, a smaller campus population or religious element is often inferred. Public universities, on the other hand, are often thought to have dense classes and fewer student regulations. However, there are more differences than just a pretentious sounding name or average class size. 

The primary difference between private and public universities is structure and funding. All public schools are regionally accredited, which is the highest form of accreditation, but not all private universities seek regional accreditation, and typically focus on national accreditation, especially when religiously affiliated. 

Like any public school, public universities are larger and funded by the state, while private universities get their funding directly from student tuition, endowment funds, and private donations. This typically translates to the tuition of public universities being significantly less than that of private universities. In the United States, this is almost always true. For example, the average tuition cost of attending the University of Washington is approximately $11,000, while the tuition cost of attending Saint Martin’s is about $38,000. In addition to varying tuition prices, public and private universities are also accountable to different bodies. State universities are obligated to meet the preferences of the state, while private universities hold themselves accountable, and to their donors who provide more impermanent, and likely conditional support. 

This seemingly alarming difference in tuition could be interpreted to mean that private universities will automatically cost the average student substantially more than to attend a public university. While it varies from student to student, this is not necessarily the case. Although public universities receive heavy subsidies from the state, they give fewer and smaller scholarships to their larger student population. Private universities like Saint Martin’s offer substantial tuition discounts and scholarships to most students, making private university significantly cheaper than advertised for many. While this amount may be inconsistent and largely dependent on the donations and the available grant opportunities each year, it could still be a preferable option as opposed to a consistent, more “flat rate” tuition charge. 

And though this does not, of course, account for the individual student’s eligibility for outside scholarships or athletic scholarships, for most students, it is a considerable factor when choosing a university and weighing its affordability. 

Larger class sizes are probably the most obvious difference between both types of schools and is influential for both the students and faculty. Larger schools can easily have 200 or more students in a single class, while smaller schools can have between 10-30 students. Professors and students who prefer a more intimate setting may choose private universities for this reason. 

In addition to the variation of class size and presence of a religious affiliation, another difference between private and public universities are the degree offerings themselves. Liberal arts colleges like Saint Martin’s are private institutions and tend to offer a much smaller range of degrees, but are also more likely to be specialized and well-regarded in these fields. This can particularly benefit students who are already certain of their career path, as opposed to students who are still exploring options. 

And finally, a distinguishing factor between public and private universities is the level or prestige associated to that school. Public universities tend to be considered less prestigious due to their lower criteria of acceptance, as opposed to the selective tendencies of private schools. This is not always the case, as some smaller liberal arts schools like Saint Martin’s have very high acceptance rates (a whopping 96% this past school year). When it comes to hiring faculty, private colleges usually hire more distinguished faculty who have conducted significant research or have more influence in their field. While the quality of education at a private versus public university is hard to measure, graduates of prestigious and private colleges are more likely to be sought after in the job market. 

While none of this is to argue the particular superiority of one type of institution to another, the differences are not entirely apparent just by name, and are significant enough to be fully understood by up-in-coming undergrads or future faculty. Understanding these substantial variations can not only help students understand the obligations of their university, but also potential students to make a definitive decision while choosing the school that’s right for them.


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