College Types for Higher Education

Most educational institutions in the U.S. are non-profit; for-profit colleges and universities are usually more expensive and academically inferior, with many cases of scams. Colleges and universities in the U.S. vary in terms of goals: some may emphasize a vocational, business, engineering or technical curriculum while others may emphasize a liberal arts curriculum. Many combine some or all of the above. Another consideration is the male-female ratio; overall, 56% of enrolled college students are women, but the male-female ratio varies by college and year and program. Admissions guidance counselors can offer views about whether a public or private school is best, and give a sense of the tradeoffs.

Two-year colleges are often county- or community-oriented schools funded by state or local governments, and typically offer the Associates degree (A.A.). They are generally inexpensive, particularly for in-state residents, and are focused on teaching, and accept most applicants meeting minimum grade and SAT score levels. Students commute to school and rarely live in dorms on campus. These schools often have articulation arrangements with four-year state public schools to permit students to transfer. Consultants suggest that community colleges are reasonably priced, and after two years with solid grades and academic performance, many colleges are willing to accept transfers.

Four-year colleges offer Bachelor of Arts (B.A.) or Bachelor of Science (B.S.) degrees. These are primarily undergraduate institutions, although some might have limited programs at the graduate level. Graduates of the tuition-free United States service academies receive both a Bachelor of Science degree and a commission.

Universities have both undergraduate and graduate students. Graduate programs grant a variety of Master's degrees including M.B.A.s or M.F.A.s. The highest academic degree is the Doctor of Philosophy or Ph.D. Medical schools award either the M.D. or D.O. degrees while law schools award the J.D. degree. Public and private universities are generally research-oriented institutions that teach both an undergraduate and graduate students.

Liberal arts colleges are four-year institutions that emphasize interactive instruction, although research is still a component of these institutions. They are usually residential colleges with most students living on campus in dorms. They tend to have smaller enrollments, class sizes, and lower student-teacher ratios than universities, and encourage teacher-student interaction with classes taught by full-time faculty members rather than graduate students known as teaching assistants. There are further distinctions within the category of liberal arts colleges: some are coeducational, women's colleges, or men's colleges. There are historically black colleges; in addition, while most schools are secular, some stress a particular religious orientation. Most are private colleges but there are some public ones.

State colleges and universities. Since they are usually subsidized with state funds, tuitions tend to be lower than private schools. They tend to be large, sometimes with student bodies numbering in the tens of thousands, and offer a variety of programs. They are generally less selective in terms of admissions than elite competitive private schools, and are usually less expensive, sometimes half or a third as much as a private institution for in-state residents; the affordability may be leading more students in recent years to choose public or state-subsidized or community colleges. There are reports that in budget shortfalls in the past few years, many state schools are selectively trying to attract higher-paying out-of-state residents. In the past few years, competition for spots in public institutions has become more intense, with some state schools such as the State University of New York reporting record numbers of students saying "yes" to their offers of admission, unlike years previously. There are reports that tuitions at state universities are rising faster than private universities. Flagship state universities are usually the most prominent public schools in a state, and are often the oldest, have the most funding, and are often the least expensive public college.

Specialty colleges such as the United States service academies have particular admissions requirements; applicants must be nominated by their congressperson.

Physically being on a college campus, talking with students, reading in the library, and dining at an on-campus cafeteria can help a prospective student determine if the school feels right. Photo: inside Wilson Commons at the University of Rochester.

Engineering or technical schools specialize in technical and scientific subjects. Some programs can be more competitive and applicants are often evaluated on the basis of grades in subjects such as mathematics (particularly calculus), physics, chemistry, mathematics, and science courses.