What Are the Different Types of Colleges?


  • There are several different types of colleges including community colleges, colleges, universities, and vocational colleges
  • All offer different programs, degrees, and educational opportunities.
  • Students should know how colleges differ from one another as it could impact their search for the best school for their needs, wants, goals, and budget.

As you explore different types of colleges, you will learn there are many different types of colleges or universities. Public, private, two-year, four-year, and more – there’s a lot that schools use to define their institution! And many will use more than one of these terms. Each of these is unique however and can bring plenty of advantages depending on the student’s goals.

Here is a list of all the different types of colleges and universities in the United States and all the terms you need to know for your research to find the best school for you.

Types of collegesQuick Definition
PublicSchools that are funded by the state’s government.
PrivateSchools funded by tuition, fees, and other private sources
2-Yearschools that usually only offer associate’s degrees and/or certificates.
4-YearSchools that can offer bachelor’s degrees (and higher, such as master’s or professional degrees) and can refer to universities and liberal arts colleges.
CollegeFour-year schools that are smaller than universities. They can be private or public, have religious affiliations, and have little to no emphasis on research.
UniversitySchools that have both undergraduate and graduate degrees available to students. They tend to be more selective, focus on research, and have impressive facilities.
CommunityGenerally smaller schools that prepare students for either a job or their associate’s degree.
VocationalSchools focused on specialized training for specific jobs within an industry.
For ProfitSchools that offer degrees but but earn profit off of tuition and other fees.
Liberal ArtsSchools that emphasize undergraduate studies in the liberal arts and sciences.
Research UniversitiesUniversities that offer professors the opportunity to conduct research in addition to their teaching responsibilities.
Art CollegesColleges with specific focus on the arts such as graphic design, illustration, painting, photography, and sculpture.
ReligiousPrivate colleges that are affiliated with a religious faith.
Single SexInstitutions only admit students of one sex.
Specialized and Mission DrivenColleges focus on educating specific groups of students.

Public Colleges vs. Private Colleges

What are Public Colleges?

Public colleges and universities are schools that are funded by the state’s government. They tend to have larger class sizes and more students compared to private schools. However, they do usually have more majors available to students to meet the wide demand of such a large class size. Public colleges also typically have lower rates for in-state residents compared to those out-of-state.

Every state in the U.S. has at least one public college or university within its borders.

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What are Private Colleges?

Tuition, fees, and other private sources fund private colleges and universities. Most private institutions have higher “sticker” prices than public institutions, although they also often offer significant discounts for many students. Student populations at private colleges and universities vary from a few hundred students to over 30,000.

Two-Year College vs Four-Year College

Two-year colleges are schools that usually only offer associate’s degrees and/or certificates. These can be community colleges, vocational schools, or similar options. Four-year schools can offer bachelor’s degrees (and up) and can refer to universities and liberal arts colleges.

Colleges vs. Universities vs. Community College vs Vocational Colleges

 “College” and “university” are sometimes used interchangeably, but there are differences you need to be aware of. These are not always hard and fast rules, though! Sometimes a school can have “college” in its name but they’re actually a university!

 What is Community College?

Community colleges are generally smaller schools that prepare students for either a job or their associate’s degree. They are almost always two-year colleges, but some community colleges will offer bachelor’s degrees. These schools also tend to have career services or assistance available if you’re planning to go to a four-year college after graduation.

What is a Vocational College?

Also known as vocational-technical colleges, trade schools, technical colleges, and career colleges, vocational colleges are focused on specialized training for specific jobs within an industry. Some examples of programs at these schools include dental hygiene, culinary arts, and firefighting.

What is a College?

The term “college” tends to refer to four-year schools that are smaller than universities. They can be private or public, have religious affiliations, and have little to no emphasis on research. Colleges can offer a few majors or hundreds and tend to only have undergraduate degrees available.

What is a University?

Universities are schools that have both undergraduate and graduate degrees available to students. They tend to be more selective, focus on research, and have impressive facilities.

Other Different Types of Colleges (And Other Terms) You Need to Know

Almost all schools will fit into two-year or four-years, college or university, and public or private. However, those aren’t the only descriptions that can be used to describe a school. These are a few other terms and types of colleges you might run into.

For-Profit Colleges 

For-profit colleges also offer degrees but tend to have much higher costs compared to other schools. They may or may not be accredited, which means credits may not transfer to other colleges and some employers may not consider it a degree.

Liberal Arts Colleges

Liberal arts colleges have an emphasis on undergraduate studies in the liberal arts and sciences. They aim to provide an overview of the arts, humanities, mathematics, natural sciences, and social sciences.

These colleges allow students to explore different disciplines rather than following a strict academic schedule in preparation for a specific career path. Most liberal arts colleges are private institutions. However, there are some public liberal arts schools, including Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts and Sonoma State University in California.

Liberal arts colleges are not “art schools”, and most liberal arts colleges offer many of the same science or mathematics studies as research universities.

Research Universities

Research universities tend to be larger institutions and focus on research. They can offer bachelor’s, master’s, doctorates, and other terminal degrees to their students.

Many professors at research universities conduct research in addition to their teaching responsibilities There may be opportunities for undergraduate students to participate, but graduate and doctoral degree students conduct much of the research on campus.

Just as liberal arts colleges are not strictly art-focused, most large research universities also offer programs in arts, humanities or other subjects. Research universities just tend to be known mostly for their science and research.

Art Colleges

Art colleges focus on the arts. In addition to general education courses, art colleges provide training in arts such as graphic design, illustration, painting, photography, and sculpture.

Many of these schools offer associate degrees or bachelor of fine arts (BFA). The majority are private, with Massachusetts College of Art and Design being the only publicly-funded art school in the country.

While art colleges may be a good fit for some students, many kinds of institutions offer similar BFA programs, so art majors are not forced to only attend these specialized institutions.

Religious Colleges

Religiously affiliated colleges are connected to religious faith. All religiously affiliated colleges are private institutions.

Some of the connections are historic in nature, while others incorporate faith in everyday student life. Not all religiously affiliated schools require students to share the faith of the college, but some do ask for a statement of faith during the application process. You may also be required to sign moral contracts at some of these colleges.

Single-Sex Colleges

Single-sex institutions only admit students of one sex.

The majority of institutions of higher education are coed. However, there are only a small number of single-sex institutions in the U.S. Several men’s colleges are seminaries, but there are other options including Morehouse College in Georgia and Saint John’s University in Minnesota. The majority of women’s colleges are liberal arts schools.

Specialized and Mission-Driven Colleges

Specialized mission colleges focus on educating specific groups of students. Historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) were established before 1964 with the purpose of serving the black community. HBCUs now admit students of all races, but many still have an African American majority.

Hispanic-serving institutions (HSIs) have at least 25% of their undergraduate student population identifying as Hispanic. HBCUs and HSCI offer activities, programs, and services targeted to the underrepresented students they enroll.

FAQs About Different Types of College

Q: Which Type of University or College Should I Attend?

A: The type of university, college, or school you should attend depends entirely on your goals. Professions require different levels of education and you may need an associate for one career but a bachelor’s for another.

You should also give thought to your wants, needs, desired major, financial aid programs, and budget. All of these factors can influence the best school for you.

READ MORE >> How to Choose The Right College

Q: What is Better: A College or a University?

A: There is no clear-cut answer to which is better, a college or university. This depends on your own needs and wants. If you would like to attend a school with a larger campus, wider variety of programs, and research facilities, a university may be your best bet. If you want a more intimate setting, a college might be the better option. However, both are absolutely capable of delivering stellar education opportunities and programs.

Q: How Does Financial Aid Differ At Different Colleges?

A: Financial aid can vary quite a bit from different types of colleges and even from college to college. The type of university can also impact financial aid packages. Large private universities, for example, tend to have larger endowments and financial aid programs thanks to their higher tuition and donations. Community colleges may be more limited in their offerings since they tend to be smaller.

This guide should help you understand and properly compare all the colleges on your list! It’s important to weigh the pros and cons of each school before you decide to attend one, and these terms could very well influence your decision.

Do you want to attend a religiously affiliated college? Or an HBCU? Or a liberal arts school? College Raptor’s College Match tool takes your wants, needs, and achievements into account to help you identify the best schools for you!

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