The basic differences between public and private universities all stem from one source – funding. Public universities are funded by the state and operate on a non-profit basis, whereas private universities are financed by alumni, donors, private organisations, endowments and the tuition fees paid by students, and some – though not all – are run on a profit basis.
Public universities need to attract large numbers of students to be economically viable, in spite of being heavily or totally subsidised, and research output also attracts additional funding, either from partnerships and collaborations with industry and business or government departments and organisations. Public universities are strictly secular and have no religious affiliations – which is not always the case with their private counterparts.
There are a number of differences between Europe and the US when it comes to public and private universities. The US public universities are often built on state land which they were granted by the state legislators, and the state also finances the infrastructure and development of the site. In exchange, these institutions’ main purpose is to serve that state’s population – and this is why fee structures differentiate between in and out of state student applications. While the US undoubtedly has some highly ranked and outstanding public universities – for example, University of North Carolina, University of California – Los Angeles, and University of California – Davis – in general, private universities are considered better.
The opposite is the case in Europe, where it is commonly stated that private universities have lower standards than their public counterparts – with a number of notable exceptions, particularly in relation to business schools, such as EDC Paris, HEC, ESCP, KEDGE and Emlyon – leading French, private institutions – or Geneva Business School and EU Business School, in Switzerland.
The distribution of private universities in uneven throughout Europe – with the continent having a total of over 770, spread across various countries:
Private universities and religious affiliation
Many private universities are affiliated with specific religious faiths.
In the US, you will find 7,000 such universities, catering to over 50 denominations, including:
- Boston College, Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts
- Kenyon College, Gambier, Ohio
- Methodist University, North Carolina
- DePauw University, Greencastle, Indiana
- Brigham Young University, Utah
- Hampden-Sydney College, Hampden-Sydney, Virginia
- St. Mary’s College of California, Moraga, California
- George Fox University, Newberg, Oregon
- Southern Methodist University, Texas
- Oklahoma Baptist University
- Wilmington College, Ohio
- Centre College, Danville, Kentucky
In Europe, the majority of private religiously affiliated universities are Catholic institutions: such as the Catholic University of Rennes, Catholic University of Lyon and Catholic University of Lille in France; the Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore in Italy; the Catholic University of Lublin, John Paul 11 in Poland; the Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium; and the Pontifical University of Salamanca in Spain, to name but a cross-section. Globally, over 600 universities are affiliated with Catholicism.
In Germany, the home of Protestantism, you will find the Lutheran University of Applied Sciences in Nuremberg – and Lutheran universities can also be found in the US, in Texas, Wisconsin, California etc. Berlin is home to the Protestant University of Berlin, while there are also Protestant Universities of Applied Sciences in Ludwigsburg and in Darmstadt.
In short, if you are looking for a religiously affiliated university, then you will need to begin by researching private institutions, rather than public universities. To learn more about the universities and your options, do not hesitate to contact Elab, and we will walk you through your choices of course and university, and provide you with information on admissions criteria, tuition fees and practical considerations.
The advantages of private universities
- Personalised education with generally small classes
- Strong links to industry and business
- Good networking opportunities
- Emphasis on placements, building industry connections and gaining experience in your field
- Generous scholarships, particularly in the US
- Higher return on investment in the long-term
- Close knit communities
- One-on-one help
- Attract first-rate academics
The disadvantages of private universities
- High or very high tuition fees
- Expensive board and lodgings/meal plans
- Difficult to get a place, since these universities have stringent admission criteria
- Most private universities are NOT need-blind
- Professors tend to be chosen for their research output and not their teaching skills
- Heavy workload
- The student community is not very diverse or multicultural
- The curriculum may be narrower than in a public university and your choice of courses more restricted
- Fewer extracurriculars
The advantages of public universities
- Big institutions which are well-equipped and offer the complete range of traditional courses
- More subject options
- Diversity and multi-culturalism
- Tend to offer more extracurricular activities and better sporting facilities
- Lower tuition fees than private universities – with many countries providing students with free education
- Greater choice of accommodation and campus locations at lower prices
- Well-developed student services, covering everything from health to emotional wellbeing, disabilities to legal advice
The disadvantages of public universities
- Classes are often large, and hundreds of students can attend the lectures
- Less personal attention and interaction with faculty
- Many courses can be taught by doctoral students
- Limited number of scholarships
CAVEAT: While the above comments apply to most universities in Europe and the US, there are, of course, exceptions. For example, in the UK Oxford and Cambridge are public universities but students are taught through the tutorial system and therefore receive a great deal of personalised teaching in very small groups of 2-4. Similarly, while private universities are extremely expensive, seven highly prestigious US institutions are totally need-blind:
so if you are offered a place, all your costs will be covered.
In many ways, the Ivy League institutions defy classification, since they do have brilliant societies, extracurricular activities and sporting facilities. Nevertheless, there are only eight Ivies in the US, and they are not typical of private institutions. Similarly, the public University of California, Berkeley, and the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, while not Ivy League universities, are highly ranked by Times Higher Education and QS, and produce research output of global importance. Thus, although there are exceptions to the rule, in general the differences between private and public universities apply!
Summary – public or private universities, which one is for me?
There is no one-size-fits-all answer to this question, since you need to consider which university offers the course you want to study; who is teaching it; whether you want to spend three or four years living in a particular location; and, of course, costs. All these factors are key to making the right choice, whether it be applying to a private or a public university.
Elab is here to help you make a decision, so get in touch, whether by phone or email, and we will set up a consultation online or in person, answer all your questions and discuss your options. We have ten years’ experience placing applicants in the world’s best universities, both public and private, and are here to offer advice and guidance.