According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), 1.8 million bachelor’s degrees are awarded each year in the United States at 4,700 colleges and universities. With that many choices, choosing just one college can seem impossible. There are many different types of schools that offer a wide variety of programs, degrees, activities, and experiences. Choosing to go to college is a fun and exciting time, but often stressful. Every school should be evaluated individually, based on your specific needs, but having a general understanding of the kinds of schools you can choose from is a good place to start. In the U.S., there are four basic types of degree-granting institutions. One type of school is not necessarily better than another; they just offer different opportunities and experiences. It is up to you to decide which school will fulfill your particular goals.
Technical, vocational, trade or career schools offer programs that take 1-2 years to complete. Programs of study are typically trade related and prepare students for skilled jobs, such as cosmetology, medical assisting, culinary arts, and automotive repair. Technical colleges offer associate degrees, diplomas, and certificates, but these credits may not transfer to four-year institutions. Students who want to enter a career field quickly without having to take as many general courses may want to attend a technical college.
Two-year, community, or junior colleges also offer associate degrees, diplomas, or certificates. While the courses at a two-year college can result in an associate degree, most of the credits are transferable to four-year colleges as well. Two-year colleges will prepare students to enter the workforce after graduation, or continue to pursue a bachelor’s degree at a four-year institution. These colleges are often less expensive and may have lower admissions requirements. Students who have not yet decided what to major in may want to attend a two-year college first.
Four-year colleges offer programs of study that will result in a bachelor’s degree. It will take a full-time student approximately four years to earn a degree from start to finish. If transferring from a two-year college, it will take less time depending on how many credits transfer from the original school. Most four-year colleges offer smaller class sizes, but their program offerings and campus experiences are now rivaling many large universities. Four-year colleges will prepare students for higher paying careers after graduation, or the opportunity to apply for graduate school at a university. Students who want to earn a bachelor’s degree may want to attend a four-year college.
Universities offer bachelor’s degrees, master’s degrees, and often doctorate, medical, or law degrees. Universities are usually large institutions that provide more degree options and specialized programs of study. Research universities primarily focus on generating research and producing graduate students who will eventually become scientists, professors, and scholars. Every state has at least one publicly funded university, and tuition rates are usually lower for residents of that state. Aside from academics, universities offer a wealth of student experiences, such as on-campus housing, Greek life, student activities, and sporting events, though many colleges now offer the same amenities to stay competitive. Students who want to earn a degree from a recognizable institution or want to continue their college careers to more advanced degrees may want to attend a university.
Associate degrees require at least 60 semester credit hours. Associate of Arts (A.A.) programs offer liberal arts degrees in general studies, such as English, history, or education. Associate of Science (A.S.) programs offer degrees in scientific studies, such as chemistry, engineering, or communications. Both A.A. and A.S. degrees are designed to prepare students for more college in pursuit of a bachelor’s degree. Associate of Applied Science (A.A.S.) programs offer degrees in technical studies, such as healthcare, automotive repair, or graphic design. A.A.S. degrees prepare students for the workforce, rather than more college.
Bachelor’s degrees require at least 120 semester credit hours and are still considered the minimum standard for most professional, higher-earning careers. Business, psychology, or education majors earn Bachelor of Arts (B.A.) degrees. Nursing, chemical engineering, or economics majors earn Bachelor of Science (B.S.) degrees. Creative arts majors, such as dancers, actors, and painters, earn Bachelor of Fine Arts (B.F.A.) degrees. According to NCES, business, healthcare, education, and social sciences are the most common careers for students who earn a bachelor’s degree.
Master’s degrees require an additional 60-90 semester credit hours, plus a thesis or dissertation project. Master of Arts (M.A.) and Master of Science (M.S.) degrees are the two most common graduate degrees, but there are many other titles, depending on the program of study. All graduate degrees require a bachelor’s degree first, although some schools allow students to take both courses together. Master’s degree programs are often more focused on research projects, rather than classroom lectures, but most are a combination of both. Students who want to teach at the college level or advance their careers to the management level should pursue a master’s degree.
The government largely funds public colleges and universities. Public colleges offer lower tuition rates, especially for students who live in that state. Most public institutions were created by state governments to provide local people access to advanced education. Public colleges and universities offer more degree options than private ones, and their campuses are usually quite large. All states have publicly funded schools at the technical, two-year, four-year, and university levels.
Private colleges and universities earn money from private contributions and tuition rates. Because private schools do not receive government funds, they cost more to attend. Private institutions are smaller in size and offer fewer degrees, usually focused on more specialized fields. For instance, private religious schools offer more specialized degrees in theology than public schools. State residency is not a requirement for private colleges and universities, so they tend to attract more student from other states.
The main goal of a nonprofit college is to offer a wide variety of degrees while also providing a full educational experience outside of the classroom. Nonprofit colleges usually offer social activities, sporting events, volunteer opportunities, and other programs that help students develop in areas outside of their academic pursuits. Nonprofit schools offer more classes and lower tuition rates than for-profit colleges.
For-profit colleges are businesses, with the main goal of making money. These schools may exist in office parks or entirely online, with no campus activities. Many for-profit schools have flexible schedules that accommodate a working student’s schedule. For-profit schools provide accelerated training for specific careers and tend to cost more. However, for-profit colleges may not be accredited, so their credits might not transfer to other colleges or universities.
The accreditation process certifies that colleges and universities are providing students with a quality education. There are six regional agencies that award institutional accreditation, as well as smaller agencies that determine program-specific accreditation, such as nursing or psychology programs. Schools are evaluated every few years to verify that they are following an accepted standard of educational practice. If not, they can lose their accreditation, so it is very important to consider a school’s accreditation status. Many employers will only hire graduates with degrees from accredited schools, and most colleges and universities will not transfer credits from non-accredited institutions.