Private vs public universities

James Madison University campus building

What is the difference between a private and public university?

Thinking about applying to university in the USA? American universities can either be private or public institutions, like James Madison University (JMU). To decide which system is best for you, it’s important to understand more about both.

Public and private universities offer different strengths and student experiences. The main factor that sets them apart is how they are funded and how this affects tuition fees. They also tend to have different campus sizes, degree options and extra-curricular opportunities.

What is a public university?

Public universities are funded by state governments. Tuition fees and running costs are subsidized by this money, which often makes them a more affordable option.

They are secular by law, which means they have no religious affiliation. Students from all backgrounds and religions can apply, which creates a diverse culture that is unique to each university. To find out about JMU’s culture, take a look at our why JMU page.

What is a private university?

Private universities do not receive money from the state. Instead, they rely on tuition fees and private contributions.

Some private universities are religiously affiliated, while others are not. This can have a big impact on the university’s culture, so you should research this before you apply.

Tuition fees

Tuition fees tend to be higher at private universities and lower at public universities, where fees are subsidized by state funding. Grants and scholarships can help students meet the costs of tuition – to find out if you’re eligible to apply as an international student, check with each university individually.

Degree options

Public universities offer a larger choice of degree options, including traditional majors, specialized fields and flexible study programs. If you’re unsure what you’d like to specialize in, a public university will allow you to explore more options.

Private universities offer fewer degree options. Some have a specific academic focus, such as engineering, computer science or liberal arts. If you know exactly what you’d like to study, then you could look for a private university that specializes in your chosen field.

Campus size

Public universities tend to have larger campuses with more facilities, from libraries to sports centers. At JMU, for example, there are more than 20 dining options on campus, and some lecture theaters can hold 200 or more students. Student populations are larger and often more diverse so you are likely to find friends with similar interests.

Private universities are usually smaller – some have only a few thousand students. The small class sizes can make it easier to speak to faculty members more regularly. At the smallest universities, you could be on first name terms with many of the staff and students. This can be a good option if you prefer the intimacy of a small community.

Extracurricular activities

Most public universities offer a wide range of extracurricular activities and sports clubs. JMU, for example, has more than 350 student clubs. If this is a priority for you, take a look at student life at JMU.

Private universities are likely to have fewer options. If you know which clubs and societies you’d like to join, you could ask if a university offers this before you apply.

Private and public university advantages and disadvantages

So, which system is best? The answer depends on your priorities and personal circumstances. Do you want to be part of a large university with lots of facilities and activities, or would you prefer an intimate campus with small classes? Do you know what you’d like to specialize in, or would you like to keep your options open? Do you have the funds to pay for a private university?

Consider the key characteristics

To help with your decision, think about the main characteristics of both and how important these are to you.

Most public universities offer:

  • lower tuition fees
  • more degree options
  • larger student bodies
  • larger campuses
  • larger class sizes
  • more student clubs and societies.

Most private universities offer:

  • possible religious affiliations
  • fewer degree options – sometimes specialized
  • smaller student bodies
  • smaller campuses
  • smaller class sizes

Of course, every university is different. Whether you choose the public or private system, remember to research the universities that you’re most interested in and find out what they offer.

To learn more about entering the public university system as an international student, take a look at JMU International Study Center and explore how we can help you adjust to life in the USA and make the most of your university experience.

Get more for your money

Like to know more about meeting your university costs in the USA while gaining a highly respected degree? Watch this video to discover why JMU offers great value for money.