What Is a Private University?

Learn how a private university differs from public institutions and a college

Duke University Chapel at sunrise
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A "private" university is simply a university whose funding comes from tuition, investments, and private donors, not from taxpayers. That said, only a small handful of universities in the country are truly independent of governmental support, for many higher education programs such as Pell Grants are supported by the government, and universities tend to get significant tax breaks because of their non-profit status.

Examples of Private Universities

Many of the country's most prestigious and selective institutions are private universities including all of the Ivy League schools (such as Harvard University and Princeton University), Stanford UniversityEmory University, Northwestern University, University of Chicago, and Vanderbilt University. Because of separation of church and state laws, all universities with a distinct religious affiliation are private including University of Notre Dame, Southern Methodist University, and Brigham Young University.

Features of a Private University

A private university has several features that distinguish it from a liberal arts college or community college:

  • Undergraduate and graduate student focus - unlike liberal arts colleges, universities have significant masters and doctoral programs.
  • Graduate degrees - most degrees awarded from a liberal arts college are four-year bachelor's degrees; at a private university, advanced degrees such as an M.A., M.F.A., M.B.A., J.D., Ph.D., and M.D. are also common
  • Medium size - No private universities are as large as some of the huge public universities, but they tend to be larger than liberal arts colleges. Total undergraduate enrollments between 5,000 and 15,000 are typical although there are certainly some that are smaller and some that are larger. Some private (as well as public) universities have significant online programs, but here I am considering only the residential student population.
  • Broad academic offerings - universities are typically made up of several colleges, and students can often choose courses in the liberal arts and sciences or more specialized fields such as engineering, business, health and fine arts. You'll often see a school called a "comprehensive" university because it covers a full spectrum of academic areas.
  • Faculty focus on research - At big-name private universities, professors are often evaluated for their research and publishing first, and teaching second. At most liberal arts colleges, teaching has the top priority. That said, a majority of private universities actually do value teaching over research, but these schools rarely have the name recognition of the research powerhouses.
  • Residential - The majority of students at private universities live at college and attend full time. In general, you'll find far more commuter students and part-time students at public universities and community colleges.
  • Name recognition - The most prestigious and well-known schools in the world are largely private universities. Every member of the Ivy League is a private university, as are Stanford, Duke, Georgetown and Johns Hopkins.

Are Private Universities More Expensive than Public Universities?

At first glance, yes, private universities typically have a higher sticker price than public universities.

This is not always true. For example, out-of-state tuition for the University of California system is higher than many private universities. However, the top 50 most expensive institutions in the country are all private.

That said, sticker price and what students actually pay are two very different things. If you come from a family that earns $50,000 a year, for example, Harvard University (one of the most expensive universities in the country) will be free for you. Yes, Harvard will actually cost you less money than your local community college. This is because the country's most expensive and elite universities are also the ones that have the largest endowments and the best financial aid resources. Harvard pays all costs for students from families with modest income. So if you qualify for financial aid, you should definitely not favor public universities over private ones based solely on price.

You may very well find that with financial aid the private institution is competitive with if not cheaper than the public institution. If you are from a high income family and won't qualify for financial aid, the equation will be quite different. Public universities are likely to cost you less.

Merit aid, of course, can change the equation. The very best private universities (such as Stanford, MIT, and the Ivies) do not offer merit aid. Aid is based entirely on need. Beyond these few top schools, however, strong students will find a range of opportunities for winning substantial merit-based scholarships from both private and public universities.

Finally, when calculating the cost of a university, you should also look at the graduation rate. The country's better private universities do a better job graduating students in four years than the majority of public universities.