Overview of Higher Education

The American university system is largely decentralized. Public universities are administered solely by the individual states.

American universities developed independent accreditation organizations to vouch for the quality of the degrees they offer. The accreditation agencies rate universities and colleges on criteria such as academic quality—the quality of their libraries, the publishing records of their faculty, and the degrees which their faculty hold. Nonaccredited institutions are perceived as lacking in quality and rigor, and may be termed diploma mills.

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.

Two-year colleges (often but not always community colleges) usually offer the associate's degree such as an Associate of Arts (A.A.). Community colleges are often open admissions, with generally lower tuition than other state or private schools. Four-year colleges (which usually have a larger number of students and offer a greater range of studies than two-year colleges) offer the bachelor's degree, such as the Bachelor of Arts (B.A.) or Bachelor of Science (B.S.). These are usually primarily undergraduate institutions, although some might have limited programs at the graduate level. Many students earn an associate's degree at a two-year institution before transferring to a four-year institution for another two years to earn a bachelor's degree.

Four-year institutions in the U.S. which emphasize the liberal arts are liberal arts colleges. These colleges traditionally emphasize interactive instruction (although research is still a component of these institutions). They are known for being residential and for having smaller enrollment, class size, and higher teacher-student ratios than universities; a typical liberal arts college is pictured on the right. These colleges also encourage a high level of teacher-student interaction at the center of which are classes taught by full-time faculty rather than graduate student teaching assistants (TAs), who do teach classes at some Research I and other universities. Most are private, although there are public liberal arts colleges. In addition, some offer experimental curricula, such as Hampshire College, Beloit College, Bard College at Simon's Rock, Pitzer College, Sarah Lawrence College, Grinnell College, Bennington College, New College of Florida, and Reed College.
California State University, Office of the Chancellor in Long Beach, California

Universities are research-oriented institutions which provide both undergraduate and graduate education. For historical reasons, some universities—such as Boston College, Dartmouth College, and The College of William & Mary—have retained the term "college," while some institutions granting few graduate degrees, such as Wesleyan University, use the term "university." Graduate programs grant a variety of master's degrees—such as the Master of Arts (M.A.), Master of Science (M.S.), Master of Business Administration (M.B.A.), or Master of Fine Arts (M.F.A.)—in addition to doctorates such as the Ph.D. The Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education distinguishes among institutions on the basis of the prevalence of degrees they grant and considers the granting of master's degrees necessary, though not sufficient, for an institution to be classified as a university.

Some universities have professional schools, which are attended primarily by those who plan to be practitioners instead of academics (scholars/researchers). Examples include journalism school, business school, medical schools (which award either the M.D. or D.O.), law schools (J.D.), veterinary schools (D.V.M.), pharmacy schools (Pharm.D.), and dental schools. A common practice is to refer to different units within universities as colleges or schools (what is referred to in other countries as faculties). Some colleges may be divided into departments–such as an anthropology department within a college of liberal arts and sciences within a larger university.

Except for the United States service academies and staff colleges, the federal government does not directly regulate universities, although it can give federal grants to them. The majority of public universities are operated by the states and territories, usually as part of a state university system. Each state supports at least one state university and several support many more. California, for example, has three public higher education systems: the 11-campus University of California, the 23-campus California State University, and the 109-campus California Community Colleges System. Public universities often have a large student body, with introductory classes numbering in the hundreds and some undergraduate classes taught by graduate students. Tribal colleges operated on Indian reservations by some federally recognized tribes are also public institutions.

Many private universities also exist. Among these, some are secular while others are involved in religious education. Some are non-denominational and some are affiliated with a certain sect or church, such as Roman Catholicism (with different institutions often sponsored by particular religious orders such as the Jesuits) or religions such as Lutheranism or Mormonism. Seminaries are private institutions for those preparing to become members of the clergy. Most private schools (like all public schools) are non-profit, although some are for-profit.

Tuition is charged at almost all American universities, except 1) the five federally-sponsored service academies, in which students attend free and with a stipend in exchange for a service commitment in the U.S. armed forces after graduation; and 2) a few institutions where offering tuition-free education is part of their mission, such as Cooper Union, Berea College and Olin College. Public universities often have much lower tuition than private universities because funds are provided by state governments and residents of the state that supports the university typically pay lower tuition than non-residents. Students often use scholarships, student loans, or grants, rather than paying all tuition out-of-pocket. Several states offer scholarships that allow students to attend free of tuition or at lesser cost; examples include HOPE in Georgia and Bright Futures in Florida.

Most universities, public and private, have endowments. A January 2007 report by the National Association of College and University Business Officers revealed that the top 765 U.S. colleges and universities had a combined $340 billion in endowment assets as of 2006. The largest endowment is that of Harvard University, at $29 billion.

The majority of both liberal arts colleges and public universities are coeducational; the number of women's colleges and men's colleges has dwindled in past years and nearly all remaining single-sex institutions are private liberal arts colleges. There are historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), both private (such as Morehouse College) and public (such as Florida A&M).