While most people can only name a few dozen schools off the top of their head, there are over 4,500 college options in the United States. This means there are several great choices for every student. On this page, we hope to demystify some of the terminology used by colleges and universities and will provide useful research tools to help you find excellent options based on your personal needs and wants.
Key College Terminology
Before starting your college search, it’s important to understand key terminology:
Public higher education institutions are colleges and universities that are largely funded by local, state, and federal taxes, as well as revenue from student tuition. While public colleges charge lower tuition rates than private institutions, they usually only offer financial aid to local residents, and almost always have higher tuition rates for out-of-state and international students.
2. Private, Non-Profit University
Private, non-profit institutions are colleges and universities that are primarily funded by tuition revenue and alumni donations. They may be secular or religiously-affiliated, and their size and academic focus may vary, from large research universities to small, liberal arts colleges.
When most people hear the term “private college,” they automatically think: expensive. This is a huge misconception. In fact, private non-profit colleges are, as the name implies, non-profit organizations that, in many cases, offer generous financial aid packages. While these institutions tend to have higher tuition rates, they may actually be cheaper to attend than a public institution. For more information about colleges that offer limited or “no loan” packages, click here.
3. College vs University
A lot of people don’t understand the difference between a college and a university. So, what is the difference?
Universities are research institutions that consist of colleges (liberal arts, engineering, arts, etc.), professional schools, and graduate schools. In other words, universities focus on both undergraduate and graduate education. A university can be a public institution or a private, non-profit.
A college is an institution that solely focuses on undergraduate education. Colleges can function as either standalone schools, or as part of a university, and can be either public or private.
4. Liberal Arts College
Liberal arts colleges are almost exclusively private, non-profit institutions, and function as either standalone colleges, or as part of a university. These colleges value academic breadth and depth and often require students to take courses across different disciplines, regardless of their majors. Liberal arts colleges tend to have small student bodies and value community and academics, equally.
Institutions funded primarily through local, state, and federal taxes.
Sticker Price: Low-to-Medium
Actual Price Based on Varying Financial Aid Packages: Low-to-Medium
Private Non-Profit Institutions
Privately run non-profit institutions that focus on education and research.
Sticker Price: High
Actual Price Based on Varying Financial Aid Packages: Low-to-High
While many think these institutions only focus on the humanities and social sciences, some of the best engineering, science, math and technology programs in the country are found at liberal arts colleges.
5. Colleges with Specialized Missions
Outside of these main categories, there are also colleges and universities that are:
Historically Black Colleges and Universities
Tribal Colleges and Universities
To help you organize all this information, we created a table with this information
Starting Your College Search
Now that you understand the basic terminology, let’s focus on the college search process.
Step 1: See what’s out there!
It’s important to first get a broad sense of what kind of universities and colleges are out there. You can see what your options are by checking out the institutions in your home state and across the country. Talk to teachers and friends about colleges in the area, and ask them what they know about colleges around the country.
Step 2: Begin to prioritize your needs and wants!
It’s time to think about what you want from your college experience. This is a perfect opportunity to sit down with your family to discuss your priorities and what you need from a school. Below are a few things you should think about. Write down your preferences in a notebook. Pick out the things that you absolutely need and that are not negotiable. Likewise, keep a list of characteristics that are undesirable. Keep track of these lists and have them at hand when you start prioritizing other aspects of each college or university you are considering.
School and Location:
Step 3: Make a college list!
After you have a list of priorities and know what you’re generally looking for, it’s time to start researching individual institutions. Visit college websites and compare schools using research tools provided by the US government and organizations like the College Board.
Question: Should we include our own college search tool here?
Selecting the right college is tough. But with the right mindset, and some research, you will find that there are great opportunities for you all over the country.