Throughout this website, we use the term “college” broadly to describe any type of formal education after high school. But when you really think about it, there actually are many different types of schools – there are colleges and universities, liberal arts and technical schools, public and private schools, two-year and four-year schools, and more. While each of these types of schools are not mutually exclusive (a school can be a four-year, liberal arts private college, for example), there are some key differences between certain types so keep clicking to learn more and find the type of school that fits your needs best.
College vs. university
Let’s start with the most basic: college vs. university. A college is usually a smaller school that typically only offers undergraduate, i.e., bachelor’s, degrees. A university is often a larger institution that offers more majors/minors and degree options such as a bachelor’s, master’s and a doctoral degree. Universities can also have several smaller, area-focused colleges within them, for example, a college of engineering, business or education.
One point of confusion: sometimes, colleges do offer graduate degrees. For example, The College of William & Mary in Virginia is called a college, but they offer graduate degrees in education, business and more. Why not change their name to William & Mary University? A lot of times, it’s because of tradition. A school with a long history of being called a college is often hesitant to change its name even though it does offer degrees beyond an undergraduate one.
When you hear the word “liberal” in liberal arts, you may start thinking that these types of schools have a particular political leaning – but that is not true. “Liberal” simply means that the education one receives at this type of school is broad and comprehensive. Students at a liberal arts school usually major in a particular field of study but also receive exposure to a wide range of academic subjects in areas such as literature, history, languages, mathematics and life sciences – particularly during their first and second years of school. This enables you to receive a well-rounded education and can prepare you for a variety of careers or for more advanced, i.e., graduate, study.
Public vs. private
The major difference between a public and a private institution is how they’re funded. A public school is one that is funded by local or state governments and usually offers lower tuition rates, especially for local or “in-state” students (those who live in the state where the school is located). A private school, on the other hand, does not receive significant funds from the government and so therefore relies on tuition, fees and private contributions for funding. This means that tuition is generally higher at private schools – regardless of whether or not you live in the state in which the school is located. You may think this gives public schools the leg up on private schools in terms of cost, but those donations at private schools can sometimes translate into generous financial aid packages for students (and therefore potentially lower cost), which is definitely something to keep in mind.
Some other differences between a public and a private school:
- Public schools tend to be much larger and offer a wider range of degree options
- Private schools tend to have smaller class sizes on average and easier access to professors
Two-year & four-year schools
As you may have already guessed, the difference between a two-year and a four-year school is the time it takes to receive your degree (and what type of degree you receive). A four-year school offers programs that generally take four years to complete and lead to a bachelor’s degree. These include universities and liberal arts colleges. A two-year school offers programs that last up to two years and lead to a certificate or an associate’s degree. The most common type of two-year school is community college, but they also include vocational-technical schools and career colleges.
As mentioned previously, community colleges are the most common type of two-year schools. They offer certificates and associate’s degrees that can either prepare you for a certain career or for continuing your education at a four-year institution where you can go on to earn your bachelor’s degree. Community colleges often have low tuition rates. They also most often have open admission, which means that you can attend a community college even if your high school grades aren’t very good. This can provide you with the opportunity to challenge yourself and see whether a four-year school is right for you. Most community colleges are non-residential (meaning they lack on-campus housing) but this doesn’t mean that they don’t do a lot to build a sense of community on campus. Many community colleges have groups, clubs and activities that are similar to those at four-year schools.
Vocational-technical colleges & career colleges
Vocational-technical and career colleges offer specialized training in a particular industry or career. These can include the culinary arts, mechanics, electrical, dental hygiene and medical assistant or records technology. The time it takes to complete a program at these schools varies, but you usually end up with a certificate or associate’s degree.
For-profit colleges refer to higher education institutions that are owned and operated by private, profit-seeking businesses. Historically, most schools in the United States have been non-profit (meaning they do not seek to make a profit), but the number of for-profit schools has grown rapidly in the past few decades. For-profit schools can be a practical option for some people, but it’s important to know that they have faced extreme criticism for high costs and poor student outcomes. Additionally, credits earned at a for-profit school may not transfer to other colleges. So if you’re considering this type of school, investigate it carefully and if you think you might want to transfer at some point (say to a four-year college), be sure to check first whether your credits will transfer.
Schools with a special focus
We’ll finish our discussion about the different types of higher education institutions by reviewing schools with a special focus. As the title suggests, these schools are different from other schools in that they focus on a particular area of study or demographic.
- Specialized Mission Schools
- Arts Colleges
- Service Academies
- Single-Sex Colleges
- Religiously Affiliated Colleges
Specialized mission schools
While a person of any race is allowed admission to these schools, specialized mission schools have a historical as well as present focus on educating particular (minority) populations. For example, historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) were established with the intention of primarily serving the African American community; Hispanic-serving institutions (HSIs) focus on assisting first generation, majority low income Hispanic students and must have a student body of at least 25% full-time undergraduates who are Hispanic; and Tribal Colleges and Universities (TCUs) preserve Native culture while also providing a college education and other services in areas where American Indian/Alaska Native (AI/AN) populations are prominent. Just as any other college or university would, these schools offer a variety of degree options and avenues of study so if you are of a particular racial/ethnic background and would feel most comfortable at a more homogenous school, check these schools out.
Click here for more information on HBCUs.
Click here for more information on HSIs.
Click here for more information on TCUs.
These types of colleges focus on one or many different types of art. For example, these schools can provide training in areas such as graphic design, photography, music, painting, production, theater and/or fashion design. Students at these schools can earn an associate’s degree or a bachelor’s degree in the fine arts or other specialized field.
In the United States, there are five service academies that provide a four-year education along with military training.
- The United States Military Academy (USMA)
- The United States Naval Academy (USNA)
- The United States Air Force Academy (USAFA)
- The United States Coast Guard Academy (USCGA)
- The United States Merchant Marine Academy (USMMA)
There are several benefits to attending these schools (tuition, room and board are free and you get paid while you are attending); however, there are specific requirements at these schools for admission, while you’re enrolled and after graduation, so make sure to do your research if a career in military service is something that interests you. Check out this resource from USA.gov for more information.
These types of schools used to be much more prevalent, but nowadays all four-year public schools and most private schools are coed. However, there still are some private colleges that are specifically for men (examples: Deep Springs College, Holy Trinity Orthodox Seminary, Morehouse College) or for women (examples: Barnard College, Bryn Mawr College, College of Saint Mary).
Religiously affiliated colleges
If you are religious and want to attend a college that is connected to your faith, a religious affiliated school may be good for you. However, you’ll want to look into the impact that religion plays on campus, in the classroom and the student body. Some colleges have a religious affiliation but it’s historic only, meaning the religion does not play a central role in the classroom or on campus. At these types of schools, you may find students who are religious in the same faith, religious in a different faith, or not religious at all. Whereas at other schools, a certain religion is the cornerstone of the institution and is highly prevalent in all aspects of life at the school. You’re more likely to find students who are deeply rooted in the particular religion at these schools, and behavior expectations on these campuses generally conform to the rules of the particular religious group.