University, college, liberal arts, community college… you may have heard of these different types of institutions and programs of higher education in the United States. But what are they all, and what does each mean for you when applying or transferring to a U.S. program of study?
Formal education in the United States after graduating high school/secondary school can be referred to as higher education, post-secondary or tertiary education, or simply “college”. However, the term “college” can be misleading, as sometimes college refers to secondary education in other countries and university is used as the term for higher education.
The U.S. has more than 4,500 Title IV eligible, degree-granting institutions. As of 2011, US has a total of 4,599 Title IV-eligible, degree-granting institutions; a little more than 60% of these are 4-year institutions and almost 40% are 2-year institutions. There are 21 million students in higher education, 13 million of whom are enrolled full-time, and 6-7% of whom are international students. We’ve put together this short guide to help you choose the right higher education institution that works for your needs, requirements, and goals.
Universities are research-oriented education institutions that provide both undergraduate and graduate (sometimes including PhD) programs. The undergraduate program will generally be referred to as “College” – for example, Harvard College at Harvard University. Graduate or PhD programs may be professional schools that offer a specific focus of study – for example, dental school, law school, pharmacy school, business school, or medical school. Universities may be broken down into separate colleges with different focuses of study, so students must choose which college within the university they want to attend.
- Public universities are state-sponsored and may be quite comprehensive, such as the University of California system, which is world-renowned. Public institutions often have lower tuition for both in-state and out-of-state students because they are supported by the local and state governments.
- Private universities tend to have higher tuition rates than public universities and can have either a secular or religious affiliation.
Liberal arts colleges emphasize a liberal arts curriculum, which can include everything from sciences to humanities. They aim to educate on general knowledge and to develop general intellectual capacities in their students. Liberal arts colleges typically have smaller enrollments and class sizes than other colleges or universities, have higher teacher-students ratios than universities, and are residential, meaning most or all students live on campus.
Community colleges are generally two-year colleges that grant associate’s degrees to their students. These colleges offer open admissions and mostly have lower tuition than other state or private schools. Many students who attend community college will then transfer to a four-year institution for two years to earn a bachelor’s degree. If this is the case, make sure your credits will transfer to the four-year institution so that you can complete the degree on time. However, some community colleges focus on practical skills and specific career training, so students will simply complete the normal two-year program.
Alternative programs include for-profit schools, which may be on-campus or online. They have a larger percentage of students receiving federal loans, which can make it more difficult to repay the loans after completing the program. For-profit schools tend to prepare students for a very specific career.
English as a Second Language (ESL) programs are a great option for students who wish to improve their English language skills before entering a higher education institution in the U.S. There are different types of ESL programs, ranging from intensive full-time programs to short-term sessions to specific university preparation programs, which often help the student in applying to the university where the program is hosted.