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Student Guide to the Different University and College Types

written by: Sylvia Cochran•edited by: Wendy Finn•updated: 12/8/2011

Having a good understanding of the various types of universities and colleges enables the student to make an informed decision with respect to future attendance. Since a higher education is a must-have in today’s competitive economy, it is good that there are plenty of options open to the student.

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    Broad Overview

    • “Keller Hall, public University of North Alabama” by Burkeanwhig/Wikimedia Commons Various kinds of universities and colleges offer Associate-, Bachelor-, Master- or Doctorate level degrees. Although basic curricula may be somewhat similar in scope, there are sufficient differences and opportunities for specialization to warrant careful shopping around. Another major reason for carefully checking out the various options is the cost: credit hours vary in price by college type.

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    Public Universities and Colleges

    A public institution of higher learning receives much of its funding from governmental sources. Operational discretion is apportioned to the state systems that run these schools. Each state features at least one but frequently more campuses for these public venues. It is interesting to note that public colleges are generally less expensive than private ones. When running a comparison of costs, North Carolina Public Radio(1) discovered that an academic year at a public college cost – on average -- $12,605 as compared to the $34,698 charged by a private university.

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    Private Universities

    • “Brigham Young private University” by Jaren Wilkey/Wikimedia Commons Not supported by governmental funding, these schools rely on tuition payments and endowments for their income. They may operate as nonprofit organizations, function as the educational arms of religious institutions or bill themselves as research organizations. A large number of Ivy League schools fall into this category. The would-be student must tread cautiously when selecting a private university: whereas public colleges must meet state accreditation standards, private universities may lack accreditation or be accredited by organizations not always recognized by the Department of Education.

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    The Ivy League

    An Ivy League education may quite possibly be one of the most expensive undertakings. These types of 4-year universities have only a few schools fall under this heading, most notably “Brown University, Columbia University, Cornell University, Dartmouth College, Harvard University, Princeton University, the University of Pennsylvania and Yale University.” Admission procedures are highly selective and in addition to having excellent grades and a polished portfolio, would-be students must show civic involvement that underscores their academic areas of interest. It is interesting to note that because of the strong athletic backgrounds that these schools feature, sports-minded students with a proven track record may have an easier time getting in(2).

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    Proprietary Schools

    • “University of Phoenix” by labanex/Wikimedia Commons In the past, these schools may have been synonymous with business colleges. Run by boards made up of investors, these colleges frequently specialize in adult education, even though high school graduates with some professional experience are also welcomed. A good example is the University of Phoenix(3) which holds great appeal to working students who do not have the opportunity to attend classes during the day and also value the opportunity of learning at an accelerated pace. Proprietary schools feature a wide array of accreditations and offer certificates and all levels of degrees, depending on the schools.

    It is interesting to note that trade schools frequently fall under this heading as well. Examples of trade schools include culinary arts colleges and also schools geared toward training future (or current) medical professionals in a trade, such as medical assistants, dental assistants and phlebotomists.

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    Community Colleges

    • “Joliet Junior College” by Babytexcoco/Wikimedia Commons These two-year public schools offer diplomas, certificates or associate’s degrees. Some schools offer guaranteed transfers to neighboring public four-year colleges to successful graduates. In the past, junior colleges were considered second-rate but closer examination(4) has proven that various schools within the community college system actually merit recognition as being instrumental in the incorporation of cutting-edge business concepts and skills in their curricula. Since the cost of attendance at one of these schools is lower than at four-year universities, this is a good option for the fiscally savvy high school graduate.

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    While it is true that all of these different types of universities and colleges can make for a very confusing number of options, they also underscore just how varied and adaptable the American higher education system truly is. Virtually any student is sure to find a good fit with one or more of these institutions. In addition, do not discount the fact that a good many of these schools have an online counterpart that makes it possible to take classes via the Internet rather than visiting a brick and mortar classroom.

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    Photo Credits:

    • “Keller Hall, public University of North Alabama” by Burkeanwhig/Wikimedia Commons at
    • “Brigham Young private University” by Jaren Wilkey/Wikimedia Commons at
    • “University of Phoenix” by labanex/Wikimedia Commons at
    • “Joliet Junior College” by Babytexcoco/Wikimedia Commons at