Finding the Right Fit II: Types of Schools

Which colleges and universities might be right for you? To a certain extent, your college experience will be what you make of it, and there are many different colleges out there that can meet your interests and needs and provide you with a great experience. It’s important though, to make sure you’re applying to colleges that have an environment, a campus culture, and opportunities that match what you’re looking for in your college experience. One of the first steps in finding the right fit is familiarizing yourself with some of the terms that people use when they are describing—and distinguishing between—colleges.

Types of Schools
At the beginning of your college search it can be useful to think about what you’re looking for in terms of broad categories. Some of the terms and categories you’ll see most frequently when reading about colleges are:

College: When people in the United States use the term “college,” they usually mean a school that awards a Bachelor’s degree, though this word can refer to any studies that happen after high school. At many schools, the college is one part of a larger institution that focuses on undergraduate education.

University: This term refers to an institution of higher education which grants academic degrees in various subjects and provides both undergraduate AND postgraduate education. For example, many universities offer Bachelor’s degrees for students after high school, and graduate degrees (such as a Master’s degree or PhD) for students after they’ve received their Bachelor’s degree. If a school is called a University, this usually indicates that there is research conducted by professors and students on campus.

Liberal Arts: The terms refers to a collection of classes, courses, ideas, and subjects that are designed to make a person who studies them “well-rounded” and emphasize abstract things like critical thinking and communication skills, rather than technical skills. The idea of a liberal arts education originated as a way of preparing people to be able to fully participate in civic life. Today, the liberal arts can refer to certain areas of literature, languages, art, music, philosophy, history, mathematics, psychology, and science. There are colleges called “Liberal arts colleges” that emphasize undergraduate study in the liberal arts and sciences, as opposed to professional, vocational, or technical study. 

Public: A public university is not-for-profit and is funded, at least partially, by tax revenue, in addition to tuition. In the United States, public schools are almost always run by state government entities, except for the five military academies, which are run by the federal government. Community colleges are almost always public schools as well. Public schools in the United States often offer lower tuition for residents of the state in which they’re located (called “in-state tuition”) alongside higher tuition for residents who do not live in that state (called “out-of-state tuition”).

Private: A private school is operated independently and funded by tuition, an endowment, donations, and sometimes government research grants. Private schools may be for-profit or not-for-profit. Some private schools have a particular social focus as part of their mission, like women’s colleges and religious institutions. Private schools tend to have higher tuition than public institutions, but can also tend to offer more financial aid to students.

Selective College: A selective college is an institution that receives more applications than the number of students it can enroll. This means that instead of directly enrolling students, selective colleges ask students to submit an application, which is reviewed, and some students are admitted while others are not.


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