Different Types of Colleges and Universities

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girl debating between different types of colleges and universities

As you probably already suspect, there are many different types of colleges and universities in the U.S. If you’re wondering which college will fit you best, the first step in determining which type of college appeals most to you. Below we explore the many different colleges and universities found in the U.S. including two-year vs. four-year, public vs. private, church-affiliated, ethnic minority, and single gender colleges and universities. Let’s start with the difference between two- and four-year colleges.

Two-year Vs. Four-year Colleges and Universities

Two-year Colleges and Universities

Community colleges, junior colleges, and technical colleges are types of two-year colleges that offer degree and professional certificate programs that can be completed in two years. These colleges usually fall into one of two categories:

  • The first type of community college offers “Transfer” programs, or basic freshman- and sophomore-level courses, where you earn credits that can be applied toward a bachelor’s degree at a four-year college or university. Typically you’ll complete 60 semester hours while attending a community college and earn an associate degree (Associate of Arts (AA) or Associate of Science (AS) in preparation for your bachelor’s degree.
  • Other community and technical colleges offer “Terminal” programs in specific career oriented and technical fields such as HVAC repair, aviation mechanics, nursing, cosmetology, etc. These programs allow students to earn a certificate (typically a one-year program) or associate in applied sciences degree (a two-year program). Terminal programs are specifically designed to help prepare students for entry-level job positions.

In contrast to universities that are located in only a few locations in each state, community colleges can be found in most cities nationwide. Convenient locations, improved curriculum, along with lower undergraduate degree costs, and open admission, are all features of a community college that make them a realistic alternative to attending a four-year university. Most community colleges are geared toward students who will be commuting to school from home so most community colleges do not offer on-campus housing.

Four-year Colleges and Universities

Four-year colleges and universities offer bachelor’s degree programs designed to prepare students for entry-level positions in a variety of career fields. Many colleges and universities also offer graduate-level programs including master’s degrees and doctoral degrees. Four-year higher education institutions are often divided into colleges and schools (e.g. School of Business, College of Graphic Design, etc.) based on subject or field; these are also called departments (e.g. education department, communications department).

Although the U.S. has very different universities, four-year colleges in the U.S. have a few characteristics that unite them and distinguish them from community and junior colleges. Universities usually have more extensive libraries and computer resources available to their students. They have more distinguished and experienced faculty, a large variety of academic programs, athletic programs, research opportunities, and most have a decent reputation for appropriately educating students for their future occupations. A lot of four-year colleges and universities also offer on-campus housing for those students who need it. In short, four-year colleges and universities offer a larger array of services, activities, programs, and prestige than community colleges.

Public vs Private Colleges and Universities

Public Colleges and Universities

Public colleges receive a substantial amount of their funding from U.S. tax monies. Consequently, they are under the supervision and scrutiny of local, state, regional, and federal governing and accrediting agencies. Public colleges and universities can set their own tuition rates and the fees they charge vary greatly from institution to institution. As out-of-state residents do not contribute to the tax pool that funds the different universities, out-of-state tuition is usually higher than that of in-state tuition. However, tuition and other costs at state colleges are still considered moderate to low when compared with tuition requirements of some private universities, especially private ivy league universities.

Private Colleges and Universities

Since private colleges are not publicly funded, tuition and fees at these institutions are usually higher than at public colleges. A good portion of private colleges are either private ivy league or church-affiliated schools. If they are church-affiliated, this means that a majority of the funding they receive comes from their sponsoring church organization and private donations. Private colleges do not rely on public funding and are not supervised by any governmental agencies, although their programs still must adhere to accreditation standards in order to receive accreditation status. Consequently, they have much more liberty to run their school as they see fit. Many private universities are among the most reputable and prestigious universities in the world.

Both public and private universities offer financial aid and scholarships to their students. In addition, many private and public institutions depend on endowments and alumni donations to help keep their university and student costs down.

Church-Affiliated Colleges and Universities

All church-affiliated colleges are private institutions. Because of the separation of church and state, as mandated by the U.S. Constitution, no public funding can be used by private religious education institutions. As such, church-affiliated colleges rely on fees charged to students, denominational contributions, endowments, and private donations to fund their operations. Students attending church-affiliated institutions are often required to attend certain religious classes or courses and may have to meet special entrance requirements.

Ethnic Minority Colleges

Many different colleges have been established with a goal of serving the educational needs of minority students. Minority colleges are very attractive to students who like the idea of attending a college along with other students who share a similar ethnic and cultural background. These institutions often have a large percentage of one minority, including Native American, African-American (Historically Black Colleges and Universities), Hispanic, or Asian. These institutions typically also have a significantly larger percentage of minority professors than other colleges.

Single Gender Colleges

It may seem a bit antiquated to some but there are still many colleges that are single gender schools. Historically, only men went to college. However, over time new and different colleges were established specifically for women and one by one those previously male-only colleges also started opening their doors to women students. Today, there are still a number of all women colleges designed to provide an environment where women have the opportunity for more leadership roles and are able to learn without the distraction or intimidation of men. These colleges typically provide excellent education and mentoring opportunities for women.

Technical and Specialty Colleges

Technical and specialty schools and colleges focus on one specific fields of study, such as engineering, business, music, or art. While these colleges are often smaller than mainstream colleges and universities, their laser-focused attention to a specific subject matter often yields very qualified graduates. This type of college is not the best choice if you have not yet decided on a major or are seeking a broad liberal arts education. However, it may be an excellent choice if you know exactly what field of study you interested in and/or which career you’re going to pursue.