The Types of Colleges: The Basics

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Sorting Out Colleges by Their Types

Is a college the same thing as a university? What does "liberal arts" mean? Why are some colleges called public and others private? Knowing the basics in regard to different types of colleges is imperative to making the right decision.

Public and Private Colleges

Public colleges are funded by local and state governments and usually offer lower tuition rates than private colleges, especially for students who are residents of the state where a college is located.

Private colleges rely on tuition, fees, and non-government funding sources. Generous financial aid packages for students are often available thanks to private donations.

For-Profit Colleges

For-profit institutions are businesses that typically offer career training. Although these colleges offer a variety of degree programs, it's wise to exercise caution when applying to a for-profit school. The degree programs often come at a higher cost, meaning students graduate with more debt. Credits earned may not transfer to other colleges so be sure to check with the admissions office at each institution.

Four-year and two-year colleges

Four-year institutions are referred to as undergraduate colleges. Four-year colleges specifically offer bachelor's degree programs. These include universities and liberal arts colleges.

Two-year colleges offer certificate programs that can be completed in under two years. They also offer two-year associate degrees. These include community colleges, vocational-technical colleges, and career colleges.

Liberal Arts Colleges

These institutions offer numerous courses in liberal arts in areas such as literature, history, languages, mathematics, and life sciences. Most of these institutions are private and offer four-year bachelor's degree programs. These colleges prepare students for a multiplicity of careers as well as graduate studies

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Universities are larger institutions that offer a wider variety of academic majors and degree options. These schools provide bachelor's, master's, and doctoral degrees. Most universities contain several smaller colleges, such as colleges of education, engineering, or health sciences. These colleges can prepare you for a wide range of careers or for graduate study.

Community Colleges

Community colleges offer two-year associate degrees that prepare undergraduates for four-year institutions offering bachelor programs. They also provide career-specific associate degrees and certificates. Community colleges are an affordable option because of their low tuition costs. 

What is the difference between a college and a university?

A college is a smaller school that may offer a wide variety of educational programs or more focused specializations for those seeking undergraduate degrees. Standing alone or as part of a larger institution, a college is often a private institution with a lower student population and smaller class sizes. On the other hand, a university is a larger school offering both undergraduate and graduate-level degrees. Because they’re a component of a university's doctoral programs, such institutions also serve as research facilities for educational advancement.

Vocational-Technical and Career Colleges

Vocational-technical and career colleges offer specialized training in a particular industry or career. Areas of study include the culinary arts, firefighting, dental hygiene, and medical-records technology. These colleges usually offer students certificates or associate degree programs.

Colleges with a Special Focus

Some colleges focus on a specific interest or student population. These include:

  • Arts colleges
  • Single-sex colleges
  • Religiously affiliated colleges
  • Specialized mission colleges

Arts Colleges

Conservatories and colleges of this variety focus on the arts. In addition to regular coursework, these institutions provide training in areas such as photography, music, theater, sculpture, drawing, or fashion design. Most of these schools offer associate or bachelor's degrees in the fine arts or a specialized field.

Single-Sex Colleges

Some private colleges are specifically for men or women.

Religiously Affiliated Colleges

Some private, higher-education institutions are connected to a religious faith. Such connections may simply be historic in nature. Others incorporate religious study into day-to-day student life.

Specially Designated Colleges

Historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) focus on educating African American students. Colleges and universities are designated Hispanic-serving institutions (HSIs) when at least 25% of the full-time undergraduate students are Hispanic. HBCUs and HSIs may offer programs, services, and activities targeted to the underrepresented students they serve.

What is better, a university or a college?

Those who prefer a more intimate experience with a greater connection to faculty may prefer a college. However, a university may be better for those looking for a broader range of programs and more learning facilities. The ultimate answer will depend on your personal preferences and the school in question. Both colleges and universities can provide a rewarding educational experience.

What to Do Now That You Know About the Different Types of Colleges

Now that you’re familiar with the types of institutions available, you should decide which one will suit your future goals. It’s often helpful to create a vision board of what you plan to achieve before deciding how you plan to achieve it. Take some time to think about your trajectory while keeping the knowledge of these various types of schools in mind. If you need direction after you assess your needs, you may find it helpful to talk to your school's guidance office, a college recruiter, or a college alum to work through any other questions you might have.

Embarking on a journey through higher education can be both exciting and challenging. Using the information presented here should help you sift through your options so the decisions you make today will serve you better in the future. For more help finding the right colleges for you, check out College Search.