male student in chapman sweatshirt leaving building

What’s the Difference Between Public, Private, Nonprofit and For-Profit Colleges and Universities?

When people think of “college,” they typically picture a four-year school, often the kind we see in movies, with ivy vines dripping off the buildings. But there are many different types of higher-education institutions, and knowing the difference could be the key to attaining your educational and professional goals.

Read on to learn more about different types of colleges and universities and which one is right for you. 

The Difference Between Colleges and Universities

Colleges can be private or public institutions that offer both two-year and four-year degrees, usually geared toward undergraduate degrees. They can have a more specific specialty (ex: college of engineering) and have smaller student bodies. However, colleges do still offer many opportunities in a broad scope of academic areas.

Universities are often associated with larger institutions (up to 70,000 students — a small city!), but that’s not always the case. While universities can offer:

  • More programs
  • Bigger campus with more amenities
  • Highly regarded faculty
  • Cutting-edge research

male student in research labSmaller universities can also offer:

  • Smaller class sizes
  • Closer contact with professors
  • Highly regarded faculty 

These institutions are usually research-focused, allowing for more hands-on experience. Thus, they tend to have schools of medicine or law. Additionally, all universities offer graduate programs in order to qualify as such.    

Comparing Public and Private Universities

A public university is defined as an institution that receives much of its funding from the state and federal government — from public, taxpayer money. But this doesn’t mean they’re free; in fact, government underfunding can often lead to high tuition and lower academic and instructional quality. In contrast, private universities do not get the bulk of their operating costs covered by the government, instead operating as educational nonprofit organizations. Funding for the schools comes from investments, private donations and tuition.

Many private colleges now offer free or greatly reduced tuition for students from families with moderate or low incomes. There are also no out-of-state tuition increases.  

Typically, public universities have large campuses — thanks in part to a 1862 policy that granted land to post-secondary educational institutions. This allows for lots of campus amenities, from on-campus housing to performance art centers and athletics, and also allows for enormous student enrollment, often into the tens of thousands.

This has pros and cons.

With all of the students at large public universities, you’ll most likely attend at least some of your classes in big lecture halls taught by teaching assistants — usually graduate students barely older than you — instead of the professor. Students at large public universities also report feeling lost or anonymous at such a large institution.

The flip side is that there might be hundreds of majors to choose from. Likewise, you will also have more clubs or other organizations available. At a well-funded public university, tuition for in-state students can be more affordable. 

While some private universities can have a heftier price tag, financial aid could potentially be more generous than at public universities. Many private colleges now offer free or greatly reduced tuition for students from families with moderate or low incomes. There are also no out-of-state tuition increases.  

woman teacher in class with small group of studentsPrivate schools tend to have smaller class sizes. Thus, students can have more individualized attention and a deeper learning experience with their professors and classmates since class sizes typically range between 10-15 students, depending on the school. Private schools also tend to offer great networking opportunities, as their small size leads to a sense of community, and alumni remain engaged with the school long after graduation.

Private institutions are often associated with higher prestige compared to state schools. This might be something you’re interested in when deciding where to apply. 

For-Profit Universities vs. Nonprofit Universities 

A for-profit university is an institution that is privately run, and tuition money is often used for marketing and recruiting purposes rather than invested in the classroom and campus experience. In other words, their focus is to earn revenue.

While for-profit universities often boast fast-track career-preparation programs, they have a poor record of:

For-profit colleges offer various degree programs; they tend to promote career-orientated degrees that give students the skills to work in specific fields, such as information systems and medical fields.

Non-profit universities receive money from the government, tuition, or donations and includes all public universities and many private universities. All money given or raised gets reinvested in the university to improve students’ experiences and increase their success. 

woman student in cafeteria

These universities can also be less expensive than for-profit universities due to state funding and other student-aid options.  

Employers tend to value the prestige of a nonprofit degree on your resume over that of a for-profit university, which will have long-term effects on your future career opportunities. 

Which is Better for You? Public or Private University

There is no right or wrong answer when choosing the perfect school for you. Both private and public schools have their strengths. Through proper and thorough research, you will be able to pick the school that best suits your needs. 

It is also beneficial to visit small, medium and large private and public universities to see if you like the campus, classes and professors. Being able to feel right at home on campus and among peers is what you should be looking for!


Belana Beeck

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