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Is it better to go to a public or private college?

QUESTION: What are the pluses and minuses of a public college vs. a private college? Signed,
Figuring It Out

Dear Figuring It Out: Though “public” doesn’t always mean “big” and private doesn’t always mean “small,” this is still an association that usually works. With that said, then, here are a few “pro” and “con” arguments to consider when looking at big public universities.

Pro: There are more students at big schools, so there’s more going on.
Con: A massive student body doesn’t necessarily mean a massive social life. A number of our students have reported the opposite, saying that, unless you’re part of some campus group, meeting people at the larger institutions can actually prove more challenging.

Pro: Big schools have more class offerings.
Con: You can typically do just fine with the more restricted class offerings at a small college—even if it doesn’t have a consortium, as many do. No matter that journalism doesn’t exist as a specific major, for example, because you’ll likely find that an English major will still get you where you need to be.

Pro: Big means more cultural events.
Con: Small colleges might have more events PER STUDENT. In other words, while Mr. Famous Author might do readings for BIG SCHOOL X more often, when he does swing by SMALL SCHOOL Y, you’ll have a greater chance of actually getting to meet him.

Pro: Big schools cost less.
Con: Small schools might have more merit (and other) money to throw your way once you’re in.

The long and short of it is, either type of school can be great, no matter your goals for graduate school or career. While small colleges typically allow for more one-on-one time with professors, if you can get noticed at a big school, this says a lot to grad school admissions, too. One of our students who chose in-state Colorado University had a tough time feeling like a number at first, but, through motivation on her part, she is now working with an internationally recognized scientist on his research project. (And talk about a letter of recommendation!)

There are other points to consider, too—such as the de facto affirmative action for boys you’ll see at small liberal arts colleges, so again, there really are pluses and minuses to each.


Eric Dawson and Lynda Herring
Eric Dawson and Lynda Herring are the authors of How to Be Irresistible to Colleges.

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