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Types of Colleges

As a student starts identifying college preferences, the classifications of colleges can be confusing to understand. Here are some common college types and their definitions, which you can use to have conversations with your mentee about their preferences.

How is the college funded?

For-Profit: Businesses that offer a variety of degree programs which typically prepare students for a specific career. They tend to have higher costs, which could mean graduating with more debt. Credits earned may not transfer to other colleges, so be sure to check with the admission office at each college.

Public: Public colleges are those that are largely supported by state funds. If you attend a public institution in your own state, you will get a break on tuition costs, and–as a state resident–it’s usually easier for you be admitted, as well. However, if you attend a public college in ANOTHER state, you will probably not get those benefits (though some state institutions do have reciprocal agreements with other nearby states.) Many states have what are known as “flagship” universities. A flagship university is the main public college in the state, and it may be huge (e.g. Ohio State University, Penn State University, University of Texas). Typically, flagship universities draw students from throughout the state as well as from other states and abroad. Often–although not always–the flagship universities are harder to get into than the other public schools in the state. Some states (e.g., New York, CA) do not have one main flagship college.

Private: Private colleges are supported by tuition, endowment, and donations from alumni and friends. Usually they are more expensive than public colleges, but it does depend on the particular school. Also, private colleges often offer the best financial aid.


What are the types of degrees offered?

Universities: Are larger and offer more majors and degree options—bachelor's, master's and doctoral degrees—than colleges. Most universities contain several smaller colleges, such as colleges of liberal arts, engineering or health sciences. These colleges can prepare you for a variety of careers or for graduate study.

Community College: Offer two-year associate degrees (AS or AA) that prepare you to transfer to a four-year college to earn a bachelor's degree. They also offer other associate degrees (AAS) and certificates that focus on preparing you for a certain career. Community colleges are often an affordable option with relatively low tuition.

Liberal Arts College: Offer a broad base of courses in the liberal arts, which includes areas such as literature, history, languages, mathematics and life sciences. Most are private and offer four-year programs that lead to a bachelor's degree. These colleges can prepare you for a variety of careers or for graduate study.

Vocational-Technical College: Offer specialized training in a particular industry or career. Possible programs of study include the culinary arts, firefighting, dental hygiene and medical-records technology. These colleges usually offer certificates or associate degrees.

Art & Design: In addition to regular course work, these colleges provide training in areas such as photography, music, theater or fashion design. Most of these colleges offer associate, bachelor's, and master's degrees in the fine arts or a specialized field.

What is the length of the degree?

4-year College: Offer four-year programs that lead to a bachelor's degree. These include universities and liberal arts colleges.

2-year College: Offer programs that last up to two years that lead to a certificate or an associate degree. These include community colleges, vocational-technical colleges and career colleges.

What is the special focus of the college?

Single Sex (Gender Specific): Specifically for men or women.

Historically Black Colleges and Universities: HBCUs focus on educating African American students.  

Hispanic Serving Institution: HSIs are colleges where at least 25 percent of the full-time undergraduate students are Hispanic.

Religious Affiliation: Are connected to a religious faith. The connection may be historic only, or it may affect day-to-day student life.