Understanding which type of college is right for you

Ready to start your journey?

CollegeRanker is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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.

It’s essential to evaluate every school individually based on your specific needs. In the U.S., there are four basic types of degree-granting institutions. Each type of school offers different opportunities and experiences, so it’s crucial to understand these differences.

CollegeRanker is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

Technical College

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 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 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 College

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 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 Degree

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 Degree

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 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.

Public Institution

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 Institution

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 students from other states.

Nonprofit Colleges

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

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.

Factors to Consider When Choosing a College or University

When deciding on the right college or university for your needs, it’s essential to take several factors into account. These factors will help you evaluate whether a particular institution aligns with your goals, values, and expectations.


Consider whether you prefer an urban, suburban, or rural setting for your college experience. Some students thrive in bustling city environments, while others prefer the tranquility of a rural campus. Additionally, consider the distance from home, as this will impact travel costs and the ease of visiting family and friends.


Institutions can range in size from a few hundred students to tens of thousands. The size of a school can significantly impact the student experience, from class sizes and faculty interaction to campus resources and extracurricular opportunities. Consider whether you prefer a close-knit, intimate atmosphere or a larger, more diverse student body.


Tuition and fees, room and board, and other expenses should all be considered when evaluating the cost of attending a particular college or university. Compare financial aid packages and scholarship opportunities to help determine which school is the most affordable option for you.

Academic Programs

Ensure that the colleges or universities you are considering offer the academic programs you are interested in pursuing. Research the reputation and strength of these programs, as well as opportunities for research, internships, and experiential learning.

Campus Culture

Visit campuses to get a feel for the overall atmosphere, values, and social environment. Talk to current students and alumni to gain insights into campus life, including clubs, organizations, and activities that interest you.

Support Services

Investigate the support services available at each institution, including academic advising, career services, and counseling resources. These services can significantly impact your success and well-being during your college years.

Graduation and Employment Rates

Examine the graduation rates and employment outcomes for graduates of the schools you are considering. These statistics can provide valuable information about the overall success of students at each institution.


Choosing the right college or university is a significant decision that will impact your future education and career opportunities. By carefully considering factors such as location, size, cost, academic programs, campus culture, support services, and graduation and employment rates, you can make an informed decision that best aligns with your goals and preferences. Remember, there is no one-size-fits-all answer when it comes to selecting the perfect institution, so take your time to research and visit various schools to find the one that feels like the best fit for you.