By James Johnston, Ed.D.
June 18, 2022

What is a Private College or University?

Terminology

To be precise, Colleges are only undergraduate institutions — or the undergraduate portion of a university.

Universities offer undergraduate and graduate degrees.

The title “college” or “university” does not imply quality differences. Amherst, Haverford, Pomona, and Swarthmore are among the very best undergraduate programs, but none offer graduate degrees. Harvard College is the undergraduate component of Harvard University.

As most writers, SAGE uses the terms “college” and “university” interchangeably - and we occasionally refer to both as “institutions.”

In the United States, we differentiate between public and private colleges and universities.

Governance

The technical, legalistic distinction is how each is governed. Public institutions are governed by state appointed or approved Trustees, who are responsible for setting tuition rates, approving the hiring of senior staff, and determining that the institutions are meeting broad-based educational goals of the state. In return for this control, government funding subsidizes the cost of educating public colleges and university students.

Funding

Private colleges, unlike public institutions, receive little or no direct financial support from their state legislatures. This means two things:

  1. They must look to other sources of income, including more reliance on tuition and support from alumni, foundations and corporations; and,
  2. They are not governed by publicly appointed boards and have more freedom in how they operate.

All public and almost all private institutions also receive indirect support from financial aid (scholarships, loans, jobs,) given directly to students from state and federal sources. Currently, individual students may receive, on a needs-based determination, up to $6,495 annually in Pell Grants (scholarships, not loans).

Number of 4-year U.S. Colleges & Universities
Public Private (non-profit)
750 1,589
Full-time 4-year Undergraduate Students
Public Private (non-profit)
8,856,477 4,068,087

History

The nation’s first colleges, beginning with Harvard in 1636, and the first universities (University of Pennsylvania, 1740) were private, not public, institutions. Recent presidents, including Donald Trump, Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, and both Bushes, graduated from private colleges and universities. Furthermore, 50% of business/corporate CEO’s (Chief Executive Officers) and senior executives with undergraduate degrees graduated from private institutions.

Accreditation

Public and private colleges and universities are approved, or accredited, by the same agencies. These agencies, which in turn are accredited by the federal government, approve of the overall mission, financial health, and success of meeting each college’s stated goals and objectives. The colleges are reviewed by professors and senior staff of peer-group institutions.

In addition, major fields of studies, such as business, nursing, teacher education and so forth, may also have accrediting organizations. Both public and private schools are subject to the same rigorous peer-review process to ensure that students are offered uniformly high standards of learning.

James Johnston, Ed.D.

Dr. Johnston is the founder and architect of SAGE Scholars, Inc. A visionary leader in the field of higher education, he works closely with the leaders of private collegiate institutions to make their values oriented educational programs more available and more affordable to families and their children. He developed Tuition Rewards, a college savings plan, in partnership with the member institutions and benefit providers. Dr. Johnston is the former Director of Admissions & Financial Aid, Wharton Graduate School, University of Pennsylvania and was selected as 2020’s “Alumni Educator of the Year” by the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education. Dr. Johnston has served on the Board of Trustees of a private college.
View all posts

SAGE Scholars News

Warner University Joins SAGE Scholars Tuition Rewards
Warner University Joins SAGE Scholars Tuition Rewards
June, 2022
Warner University, where President David Hoag and his wife have hosted more than 3,500 students in their home in recent years, has become the 19th Florida university / college to participate in SAGE Scholars Tuition Rewards. Founded in Central Florida in 1968, Warner is home to 800+ undergraduates on a 300-acre campus in Lake Wales, an hour’s drive from Orlando or Tampa. Offering...
Introducing The SAGE Scholars Newsroom
Introducing The SAGE Scholars Newsroom
June, 2022
Since 1995, SAGE Scholars has bridged the gap between how families perceive the expense of private college and how they pay for it. With over 440 member institutions and growing, SAGE Scholars has sedimented itself as the nation’s most trustworthy college savings organization. The SAGE Scholars Newsroom is now stepping into a new...
Molloy University Joins SAGE Tuition Rewards
Molloy University Joins SAGE Tuition Rewards
May, 2022
Molloy University, located just 25 miles from Midtown Manhattan, has become the first Long Island college to join the SAGE Scholars Tuition Rewards program. 31 New York State private colleges now participate in the SAGE Enrollment Consortium, the nation’s largest for private colleges. From a freshman class of 44 students in 1955, Molloy has grown to serve 3,300 undergraduates (36%...
Ottawa University Kansas Joins SAGE Scholars Tuition Rewards
Ottawa University Kansas Joins SAGE Scholars Tuition Rewards
April, 2022
Ottawa University Kansas, which offers a remarkable number of varsity sports teams — 33 — to serve a student body of 650 undergraduates, has become the 11th Kansas private college to join the SAGE Scholars Tuition Rewards program. 88% of OU Kansas students are athletes, including numerous unexpected possibilities: beach volleyball, bowling, competitive cheer and dance, Esports,...
Laguna College of Art + Design Joins SAGE Scholars Tuition Rewards
Laguna College of Art + Design Joins SAGE Scholars Tuition Rewards
April, 2022
Laguna College of Art + Design, preparing individuals for careers as creative artists and designers in a culturally and ethnically diverse world, has joined the SAGE Scholars Tuition Rewards program -- the 14th participating college to specialize exclusively in the arts. Home to 700+ student artists, LCAD offers 11 undergraduate majors, nine minors, three graduate degree programs, and a...
Simpson College Joins SAGE Scholars Tuition Rewards
Simpson College Joins SAGE Scholars Tuition Rewards
March, 2022
Simpson College, where nearly 100 students participate on the highly-acclaimed Speech and Debate Team, winner of Pi Kappa Delta national championships four of the past five years, has joined the SAGE Scholars Tuition Rewards program. Speech and Debate scholarships are available at Simpson, located near Des Moines, Iowa’s state capital. Small class sizes create a dynamic learning...