The challenges of private vs public colleges


Private colleges are having a tough time recently. Due to widespread financial problems with limited (or no) state support, many are even having to close their doors. Yet, the latest figures show that enrollment has actually gone up at private non-profit universities, rising by 1.9% across the US. 

While overall these are positive figures, not every state is seeing the same growth. Private colleges in the Midwest such as Michigan, Wisconsin, and Ohio are feeling the pinch more than others. In Michigan, enrollment at private colleges in the state fell by 1.2%, while Ohio saw a decrease of 1.7% and Wisconsin only saw marginal growth in comparison with its public college counterparts.

Meanwhile, public institutions in the region have instead seen an influx of new students in the Fall 2023 semester. Northern Michigan University, for example, experienced a 3.3% increase in enrollment. Similarly, Ohio University set a record for first-year enrollment at its Athens campus, enrolling 4,516 students, with the University of Wisconsin growing by 1700 students or 1.1% in the same period. After years of decline, these are good figures for public universities.

Financial constraints and limited state support

One of the most significant challenges private colleges face compared to public institutions is the lack of state funding. While public colleges benefit from substantial state financial support, private institutions rely heavily on tuition fees, donations, and endowments. In the Midwest, this disparity is particularly pronounced. For example, public universities in Michigan, Ohio, and Wisconsin receive millions of dollars in state funding annually, which helps them subsidize tuition fees and invest in campus facilities and student services.

In contrast, private colleges often have to operate on tighter budgets, making it difficult to offer competitive financial aid packages or maintain state-of-the-art facilities. This financial pressure can lead to higher tuition costs, which may deter prospective students who are increasingly cost-conscious. The financial strain is further exacerbated by declining enrollment figures, creating a vicious cycle where fewer students lead to less revenue, which in turn limits the ability to attract new students.




Given the economic history of the Midwest’s Rustbelt states, the importance of employability in university messaging cannot be overstated. As towns are still feeling the impact of companies offshoring the automotive and steel industries, many students are acutely aware of the harsh reality of the economy and career prospects. That being said, there is a clear disparity when it comes to the best-performing universities for career prospects and the enrollment trends the Midwest is seeing. 

Michigan State University reports 86% of graduates finding continuing education or employment within 6 months of graduation and University of Michigan’s College of Literature, Science and Arts reports an 89.8% employment/continuing education rate. Both of these public institutions saw a slight bump in enrollment last year. 

Comparatively, private institution Kalamazoo College has had a fraction of growth but outperforms both universities on employment metrics. Another private, Kettering University also boasts that their graduates have the highest starting salaries in the state, but yet again is suffering from a decline in student numbers.

Objectively looking at the numbers, it’s clear that private colleges provide better chances for gainful employment after graduation. But rarely do universities win over students through objective data alone. Private colleges need to tap into emotive storytelling to get across the more dedicated and deliberate career services available to students and show rather than tell what great opportunities can be unlocked through their institution. Given the current question marks hanging over the head of the value of a degree, tackling the issue head-on can turn the tide for these smaller institutions.


Finding the right student persona


One of the perceived advantages that public HEI’s have over private institutions is the national, and sometimes global, reach of their brand. For a student with career ambitions outside of their state, one could see the appeal of behemoths like the University of Wisconsin Madison. Having one of the biggest football stadiums in the United States, its research output and sheer size of over 48,000 students makes it one of the more recognizable universities outside of the Ivy’s. Interestingly, 45% of graduates from UW-Madison stay within the state for their first job.

For private colleges, this is where the battle ground lies – with the students who intend or are more likely to end up staying in the state. As mentioned, some private colleges manage better employability outcomes without national prestige. So for students staying in the state where private HEI’s are more recognisable, why would they need the national prestige? For private institutions, aligning branding closely with the ideals, ethos and identity of your state will build a stronger affinity for these students who see themselves staying within the state post-graduation. This student persona should be priority number one for private colleges looking to balance out the enrollment intakes.


Private colleges have and always will have their place in the education system. With a more personalized education, greater employability rates and often providing substantial student aid, there’s a lot to be positive about if you’re working within a private college. As the pool of graduating high school students willing to go to university declines, public and private universities will continue to compete over the dwindling pool of viable students, but with the right strategy and execution, private HEIs can thrive in the coming years.

If you’re looking for a partner to strengthen the position of your private institution, be it in your backyard or on the national stage, get in touch.