Public University Definition

Texas A&M Academic Building at the heart of the main campus in College Station

Denise Mattox / Flickr / CC BY-ND 2.0​  

The term "public" indicates that the university's funding comes partly from state taxpayers. This is not true for private universities. It's also worth noting that many states do not fund their public universities adequately, and in some cases far less than half of the operating budget comes from the state. Lawmakers often see public education as a place to cut back on spending, and the result can sometimes be significant increases in tuition and fees, larger class sizes, fewer academic options, and longer time to graduation.

Examples of Public Universities

The largest residential campuses in the country are all public universities. For example, these public institutions all have more than 50,000 students: University of Central Florida, Texas A&M University, The Ohio State University, Arizona State University, and the University of Texas at Austin. These schools all have a strong focus on faculty and graduate research, and all have Division I athletic programs. You won't find any residential private universities that are nearly as large as these schools.

All of the schools listed above are major or flagship campuses of the state systems. The majority of public universities, however, are lesser-known regional campuses such as the University of West Alabama, Penn State University Altoona, and the University of Wisconsin. Regional campuses often do an excellent job controlling costs, and many offer programs suited for working adults who are trying to earn a degree.

Features of Public Universities

A public university has a few features that distinguish it from private universities:

  • Size - The size of public universities varies widely. As mentioned above, however, the largest universities in the country are all public. You'll also find regional public universities of just a couple thousand students.
  • Division I Athletics - The great majority of Division I athletic teams are fielded by public universities. For example, all but one member of the SEC (Vanderbilt) are public universities, and all but one member of the Big Ten (Northwestern) are public. At the same, time, there are numerous Division II, Division III, and NAIA athletic programs at public universities, and some public institutions that have no intercollegiate athletic programs at all.
  • Low Cost - Public universities typically have tuition that is considerably lower than private universities, especially for in-state students. Out-of-state tuition can vary widely, and some schools such as those in the University of California System and the University of Michigan have out-of-state tuition that is as high or higher than many private institutions. Also keep in mind that many public universities don't have the resources for robust grant aid that you'll find at top-tier private universities, so if you qualify for financial aid, you may actually find that a top private university will cost you less than a top public university, even if the sticker price is tens of thousands of dollars higher.
  • Commuter and Part-time Students - Public universities tend to have more commuter and part-time students than private colleges and universities. This is particularly true of regional public universities. The flagship campuses of state systems tend to be largely residential.
  • The Downside - Read the profiles of universities carefully. In many cases, public universities have lower graduation rates, higher student/faculty ratios and more loan aid (thus, more student debt) than private universities.

Public universities share many features with private universities:

  • Undergraduate and graduate student focus - Large public universities have significant masters and doctoral programs just like top private universities.
  • Graduate degrees - At large public universities, advanced degree offerings such as an M.A., M.F.A., M.B.A., J.D., Ph.D., and M.D. are common.
  • Broad academic offerings - Students can often choose courses in the liberal arts, sciences, engineering, business, health, and fine arts.
  • Faculty focus on research - At big-name public universities, professors are often evaluated for their research and publishing first, and teaching second. Teaching may take priority at branch campuses and regional public universities.

A Final Word on Public Universities

The most selective colleges in the country are all private, and the colleges with the largest endowments are also private. That said, the country's best public universities deliver educations that are on par with their private counterparts, and the price tag of public institutions can be as much as $40,000 less per year than elite private institutions.

The price tag, however, is rarely the actual price of college, so be sure to look into financial aid. Harvard, for example, has a total cost of over $66,000 a year, but a student from a family that earns less than $100,000 a year can go for free. For in-state students who don't qualify for aid, a public university will frequently be the more affordable option.

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Grove, Allen. "Public University Definition." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Grove, Allen. (2023, April 5). Public University Definition. Retrieved from Grove, Allen. "Public University Definition." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 8, 2023).