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American grad school: public versus private universities

Katie Schenk - April 09, 2018

American grad school: public versus private universities

The United States has an enormous number of universities. If you’re after an American masters, you’ll have an incredible choice to make - whether you want a business, engineering, law, or any other degree.

Consider for one second the sheer number of choices you’ll need to make when considering:

  • Location
  • City size
  • Enrollment figures
  • Spring or autumn admissions
  • Price

And, that’s before you consider primary factors such as academic focus and elective, and before moving onto specifics like recruitment processes and alumni networks.

So, should you worry about the difference between public and private universities on top of all that?

You can… but only if you know what the differences are to begin with. 

The primary difference between public and private universities

There is one difference that applies across all public and private universities - funding.

  • Public universities in the US receive government funds, usually from state governments. (That’s why you’ll almost always see in-state and out-of-state tuition.) On top of government funding, of course, are tuition and fee payments.
  • Private universities don’t receive money from the government, but they often get funds from alumni in addition to tuition payments. 

MISCONCEPTION: Private universities are more expensive than public ones.

While this is sometimes the case, it’s not a universal truth. The tuition to pursue an MBA at Duke Fuqua (private) is cheaper than you’ll pay at Michigan Ross (public). Sure, the latter tends to fall higher on the rankings, but that doesn’t always mean a university is cheaper. Berkeley Haas (public) traditionally ranks higher than Michigan Ross, but the tuition is significantly cheaper. 

More misconceptions about public and private universities

The source of funds is the only verifiable difference between public and private universities (whether it makes one more expensive than the other - or not).

But, there are plenty of perceived differences between these two types of institutions.

You’ll need to look past this perception to find the programme that’s right for you.

Another misconception revolves around the amenities that universities offer, with the assumption that private universities provide greater amenities and access to resources. While this may have been true years ago, any gap that once existed has been reduced to negligible when considering otherwise comparable schools.

As you peruse the tables below (broken into study fields), you’ll see that misconceptions aren't always representative.

MISCONCEPTION: Public schools have more students than private ones.

While the largest public university has more than 60,000 students, the largest private US university has around 20,000. This is only important if you have a strong preference for large or small campuses - or if you believe that fewer students means more personalised attention.

At the graduate level, the number of students in the department enrolled in masters or doctorate classes is usually far more important. 

What’s the difference between public and private universities for business, engineering, and law programmes?

When you’re looking at law schools, the figures for engineering programmes are no measure to compare programmes. Everything is different - including (almost always) the tuition payable at the graduate level.

We’ve considered three broad sectors of study to drill into the differences between public and private universities. And, while you’re probably only considering one of these degrees, you might find information from the others are helpful when narrowing your final school options. 

Public versus private business universities

MBA programmes are probably the biggest anomaly when it comes to public and private university stereotypes.

It would be a fallacy to assume that private programmes pay more attention to their alumni than public universities because that’s a key source of funding. MBAs rely heavily on their networks - including alumni, so every school works to develop solid alumni networks.

The same can be said about diversity levels and opportunities for networking.

However, you’ll find that class sizes tend to be smaller in public universities (which runs contrary to popular belief), though tuition is often more.

While costs at private universities are higher in the top ten positions, these schools also tend to offer more financial aid - even to international students.

More importantly, you’ll want to look at programme strengths - and for alumni with similar career outcomes - rather than whether a university is public or private (unless you can prove residency in a specific state). 

Top 10 private business universities

Programme and rankings

Class size

Tuition

1857

$72,000

1176

$69,200

1737

$70,200

1296

$68,955

1297

$71,544

582

$68,910

882

$65,665

716

$69,086

 Averages:

1120.9

$69,542.80

Top 10 public business universities

Programme and rankings

Class size

Tuition

824

$67,300

671

$62,342

725

$58,458

221

$47,541

392

$47,128

227

$46,176

Averages:

487

$53,888

Public versus private engineering universities

The number of graduate-level engineering students is massive at most schools. So, this is one area where you would think that class size makes a big difference - and that there would be a palpable disparity between public and private universities.

There isn’t when it comes to class size. In fact, when averaging the top ten private university class sizes and comparing that figure to the public university average, public universities come out on top (which, in this case, means fewer students).

One factor that engineering applicants consider that isn’t found in either law or business, is the amount of research expenditure. And, there is very definitely a misconception that private universities spend a lot more than public universities. It’s easy to see why someone might think so given the super high research expenditure at MIT. But when you start looking at averages, public universities win again.

You can, of course, consider the cost as a pro or con when considering these schools, but Michigan Ann Arbor (public) is on par with Caltech (private), so it all boils down to the specific field you want to pursue and then considering your other concerns. 

Top 10 private engineering universities

Programme and ranking

Class size

Tuition

Research spend

1038

$49,580

$447,783,000

3583

$52,188

$208,409,875

3737

$46,000

$209,429,129

5600

$36,000

$204,677,629 

2115

$29,500

$123,161,918

1125

$52,170

$145,490,538 

Averages: 

2388

$44,226

$178,933,339

Top 10 public engineering universities

Programme and ranking

Class size

Tuition

Research spend

1946

$29,170

$219,018,000 

1884

$47,894

$277,082,000 

3463

$29,928

$261,557,289 

3895

$28,568

$215,092,000 

3422

$34,330

$238,991,306 

2149

$18,570

$202,459,954

Texas A&M University - Dwight Look College of Engineering (US News: 12)

1847

$19,657

$278,129,000 

1498

$32,301

$178,809,528 

2064

$32,000

$92,342,618 

479

$25,269

$143,999,230 

Averages: 

2265

$29,769

$210,748,093

Public versus private law universities

When it comes to master’s level law degrees, the choice between public and private schools isn’t always an option for students that want to practice in the United States.

There are two factors which are far more important:

  • Location
  • Specialisation

While a few of the highest-ranked law schools confer degrees which are highly regarded by employers, most have a stronger value regionally.

Why?

The bar exam is the primary reason for this; differences in state laws mean a university in one state may not prepare students adequately to sit the exam in another state. As a result, most law firms are established in the same state where its founders studied - and, subsequently, firms tend to recruit in-state.

Location is critical; outside the top ten programmes (give or take), it’s important to choose a university in the state where you hope to remain - unless, of course, you plan to return to your home country with your degree.

Specialisation, however, remains far more important than whether a university is public or private (and in some cases, more critical than its location).

While you’ll find plenty of law schools offering a concentration in financial or banking law, you’ll find a mere half dozen programmes centred on asylum law. If want to focus your attention on a less popular field, you’ll find even fewer options on your list.

And when it comes down to price and class size, you won’t find the differences you’ve been led to believe exist. While the tuition average for private schools is higher, that may have more to do with fact that there are significantly more private schools in the top ten. And as for class size, just take a look.

Top 10 private law universities

Programme and ranking

Class Size

Tuition

State

Yale University - Yale Law School (US News: 1)

625

$62,170

Connecticut

565

$60,270

California

1757

$62,792

Massachusetts

597

$62,865

Illinois

1264

$67,564

New York

1364

$63,986

New York

736

$63,364

Pennsylvania

666

$62,247

North Carolina

657

$62,084

Illinois

597

$63,327

New York

Averages: 

883

$63,067


Top 10 public law universities

Programme and ranking

Class Size

Tuition

State

931

$60,508 

Michigan

936

$53,315 

California

912

$61,300 

Virginia

889

$51,995 

Texas

UCLA - Law School (US News: 16)

942

$52,151

California

University of Minnesota - Law School (US News: 20)

558

$52,586 

Minnesota

420

$51,649 

California

Arizona State University - Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law (US News: 27)

777

$44,888

Arizona

University of Alabama - School of Law (US News: 27)

406

$40,670

Alabama

University of Iowa - College of Law (US News: 27)

415

$45,916

Iowa

Averages: 

719

$51,498


What does it all mean?

For the most part, international grad students don’t need to focus on the differences between public and private universities in business, engineering, or law - at least not when they begin to consider their options.

But, understanding the broad generalisations can be useful when narrowing down final school selections; it helps to know how a school competes against its peers - and whether it’s an anomaly, perhaps making it better value for money.

 

Ready to get one of these degrees?

Prodigy Finance offers post-graduate loans for students pursuing business, engineering, and yes, even crossover master’s degrees. Once you’ve found your dream programme, we’re ready to help with the financing.


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