Types of Colleges

There are more types of colleges than there are flavors of ice cream. Which is to say, there’s a lot. Here are some of the decisions you’ll have to make when choosing between the various different options of colleges.

  • What do you want to study? If you already know the exact career you want to pursue or the field you want to study, research colleges that enjoy top-notch reputations in those areas. If you have a general sense of your area of interest, search for colleges with strong programs in that area. For example, perhaps you’re interested in liberal arts, but not yet sure about which major to pursue. In that case, search for colleges with strong, well-rounded liberal arts programs. If you’re undecided about your academic focus, look for colleges that offer a wide range of majors and degrees. If you’re more interested in leaving college with a set of skills for a specific manual trade, consider vocational school.
  • Where in the world do you want to be? For years, real estate agents have claimed “location, location, location” as the most important factor in buying a home. While what you are studying might be more important than where, “where” counts also. Do you crave city life? Or maybe cornfields as far as the eye can see? Want to go to school near a beach where it’s 70 degrees all year round? Or maybe in the frozen tundra? Want to live at home and go to school down the street? Or experience the adventure of being 2,000 miles away from home? All of these factors come into play in choosing where to go to college. Think about the types of activities you enjoy and the ways you plan to spend your time when not in class.
  • How much does it cost? It would be nice if this wasn’t a factor, but unfortunately it usually is. That being said, many schools and organizations offer affordable financial aid packages and scholarships. Most Ivy League schools offer no-loan aid packages for students whose families make under $60,000/year. However, if you don’t get into a Ivy League school, there are a number of different options to keep costs low. Choosing a public (state) school instead of a private college, attending a 2 year community college first, and even online degrees are all possibilities. Remember - in general, even some college is better than none.

College Types

  • Public vs. private. Public (or state) schools are cheaper than private schools because they are subsidized by state and local governments. Often public schools offer reduced tuition to in-state residents. Private schools operate on tuition, fees, and other sources of funding, and can sometimes have large endowments and donated funds available for generous financial aid packages.
  • 4 year vs. 2 year. The traditional idea of “college” is 4 years of study ending in a bachelor’s degree. However, options exist for those who can’t afford, don’t want, or might not qualify for a full 4 years of school. Community and junior colleges offer 2 year programs which award certificates or associate degrees. Often these 2 year programs have open enrollment to anyone with a high school diploma.
  • Liberal arts. These mostly private colleges offer Bachelor of Arts degrees and require students to study a broad range of subjects and disciplines. Their goal is to give students a “well-rounded” education with lots of individual attention on undergraduates.
  • Universities. Universities tend to be larger (sometimes enormous) and offer more courses of study and more degree options, including graduate programs. Most universities contain smaller colleges within their umbrella, such as colleges of liberal arts, engineering, health sciences, and agriculture.
  • For-profit. For-profit colleges offer a variety of degree programs usually aimed at a specific career. They tend to be more expensive, so you may leave school with more debt. If you are interested in a for-profit school, make sure you check that the school is accredited, or your credits may not transfer to another institution. A good place to start to see if a school is accredited is the database at the U.S. Department of Education. Vocational schools are also listed here.
  • Vocational, technical, and career. Vocational and career schools are aimed at learning a specific profession or career. They specialize in disciplines like engineering, automotive services, health services, and culinary arts. These schools are for students who are clear about which career path they want to follow. The same caveats for for-profit schools also apply to career schools; make sure you read the fine-print and know what you are signing up for!
  • Special focus. Some schools focus on specific subjects or demographics. These include fine arts schools and conservatories, HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities), single-sex colleges, and schools with religious affiliations.
  • Online degrees. Many institutions are now offering partial or full degrees that can be obtained entirely online. According to US News and World Report, 62.7% of colleges and universities now offer fully online degree programs as opposed to half that number 10 years ago. Many of the for-profit colleges dominate the Google search results online, so make sure you are looking at accredited institutions with good reputations. A general rule of thumb might be that if it is also a brick-and-mortar college/university with a long history (Pace University, Auburn University, and St. John’s University all have highly rated fully online programs), you are probably on the right track.