The main aim of this article is to explore similarities and differences in the institutional features of private and state universities in the Italian higher education system and to assess whether graduating from a private university conveys advantages in the labour market. In the first part we use administrative data to describe the main institutional features of the two types of university, looking at organisational aspects, enrolments and graduates, financial resources, tuition fees, and teachers' characteristics. In the second part we develop a theoretical framework looking at sociological and economic theories of education and labour market, from which we derive some hypotheses on the expected results. In the last part, we apply a propensity score matching analysis on data from the Italian University Graduates Survey conducted in 2007 by the Italian National Institute of Statistics, which provides information on more than 40,000 graduates who obtained their degree in 2004. The main results indicate that graduates from private universities are younger, have a higher socio-economic background and a slightly better previous school career than those from state universities. Contrary to a widespread belief, once accounted for self-selection into the type of university using a wide range of variables, graduating from a private university has neither a significant nor a substantial effect on employment probability, hourly wage and occupational level three years after graduation.