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Types of Colleges and Universities in the U.S.

By Peterson's Staff updated on Tuesday, January 29, 2013

If you're planning to study in the U.S., you have a number of choices when it comes to picking your school. There are many types of colleges and universities, each having its own mission and purpose within American education.

Two-year colleges
Two-year institutions, which are typically referred to as community or junior colleges, award the associate degree — Associate of Arts (A.A.) or Associate of Science (A.S.) — following successful completion of a two-year, full-time program. A small number of two-year colleges offer the final two years of the undergraduate program only, awarding the bachelor's degree rather than the associate degree.

There are two basic types of programs at community and junior colleges, so you should have your career goals in mind when doing your college search.

Some programs are strictly academic and designed to prepare students to transfer to four-year institutions with bachelor's degree programs. Others are more practical or applied and provide career training in specific areas. This second type of school does not usually prepare students for transfer to a four-year institution, though some of the credits earned may still be accepted by a four-year institution.

Most community and junior colleges are publicly supported by the state and local communities, although some are private. Some private two-year colleges are proprietary or run for a profit. Investigate any college information you can find about these schools to get a better sense of their backgrounds.

Four-year colleges and universities

The college or university (sometimes called an institute when it emphasizes engineering or other technical courses) awards the bachelor's degree. The Bachelor of Arts (B.A.) or Bachelor of Science (B.S.) degrees are the most common, but a variety of bachelor's degrees by other names are also granted.

Bachelor's degrees are typically awarded following successful completion of a four-year, full-time program. Programs in some fields of study or at some institutions can be longer than four years. There are both public and private colleges and universities in the United States, and some have an affiliation with a religious denomination.

College guides are often a good place to begin your college search. In these guides, you can see the variety of four-year institutions that are available to you. Further investigation of the college info provided by the schools themselves can help you explore your options.

Public versus private
Publicly supported schools are generally state colleges or universities or two-year community colleges. These institutions receive most of their funding from the states in which they are located. Private schools generally have higher costs because they do not receive the same primary funding from the state and federal government.

Colleges and universities with religious affiliations are private. Most of them are Christian (Roman Catholic and Protestant), although there are a small number of Jewish and Islamic institutions. In most cases, you do not need to be a member of a particular church or religious group to attend a religiously affiliated college and enrollment in these institutions will not usually interfere with your own religious views.

Privately-owned colleges
Proprietary institutions are different from other types of schools in that they are privately owned and run for a profit. They are "educational businesses" that offer services and courses similar to those at other institutions, but you need to be very careful and research their accreditation status as part of your college search. Their programs tend to be technical and pre-professional courses of study.

Co-educational vs. single-gender
Almost all the colleges in the United States are now coeducational, which means that both men and women attend. There are also a small number of single-sex schools, some for men and some for women. The college information provided by the school typically indicates the gender ratios. Faculty, administration, and staff members will likely be of both sexes at any college.

About the Author

Peterson's has more than 40 years of experience in higher education, and the expert staff members here are all ready to leverage their considerable knowledge and experience to help you succeed on your educational journey. We have the information, the know-how, and the tools -- now all we need is you!

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