The different types of educational institutions

November 24, 2021

DegreeChoices Staff

What is the difference between a college and a university? Public and private institutions? Is community college a good way to start a career? With over 6,000 higher education institutions nationwide, students often wonder which path to choose.

Whether you have already chosen a career or are still exploring your options, there is a school for you. Incoming students can choose their college by size, cost, location, and degree choices. For those looking for a specific experience, gender, race, and religious affiliation can help make the decision easier.

Higher educational institutions

The basic types of post-secondary institutions include:

  • community colleges
  • technical or vocational schools
  • public colleges and universities
  • private colleges and universities

Students can choose to further customize their college experience by choosing an institution specializing in a particular type of learning or student body. Liberal arts colleges, historically black colleges and universities, and Ivy League schools offer these unique experiences.

Community colleges

With a relatively simple admissions process, lower tuition costs, and programs that allow students to begin a career immediately upon graduation, community colleges appeal to a variety of students. Working professionals may complete a certification course at a community college to get ahead in their career or change professions. These schools also appeal to high school graduates who are not able or ready for the commitment of a 4-year program.

There are 942 community colleges nationwide. These schools provide certificate programs leading to credentials designed for specific skills and trades, in addition to 2-year associate degrees. Many students spend 2 years studying in community college before transferring their credits to a bachelor’s program at a college or university.

Applicants to community colleges do not always require a high school diploma or general education development (GED) certificate. Most have open admissions policies with a minimum requirement that applicants are at least 18 years old. California Community Colleges, for example, are required to accept all state residents meeting this requirement.

Community colleges may have technical and vocational programs, but typically offer a wider variety of subject areas than technical or vocational schools. The associate degree programs at these colleges are often trade-based, requiring hands-on instruction. As a result of the COVID19 pandemic, enrollment in community colleges dropped precipitously as students were unable to attend class in disciplines where in-person training is required, such as nursing or mechanical engineering.

Students attending community college programs may be working professionals earning a credential to further their career. For this reason, community colleges often offer flexible course structures including online asynchronous lessons and evening classes. Most community college campuses do not provide on-campus accommodation.

  • Average cost – $10,300 per year
  • Example careers include paralegal, physical therapy assistant

Technical and vocational schools

Focused on careers, technical and vocational schools list their programs as career training tracks rather than degrees or certificates. These tracks are designed to give students specific skills needed for their target profession. For example, medical assisting programs may include an internship in a local clinic alongside laboratory sessions to practice skills like blood draws.

The main difference between technical and vocational schools is that vocational schools are more hands on while technical schools may have a stronger classroom component. Graduates from both schools typically can begin working immediately upon graduation.

Most vocational and technical schools require a high school diploma or GED. These schools do not usually request SAT or ACT scores, but may require a placement test. Some schools waive the requirement for a high school diploma for students with strong scores on their placement test, and may admit students as young as 16 with parental consent. Trade and vocational schools are usually commuter-based.

Example careers include radiation therapist, dental hygienist, licensed practical nurse

Private colleges and universities

Funded by tuition and private contributions, private universities have the highest tuition rates among all higher education institutions. Private colleges offer smaller student population and class sizes and a narrower range of majors compared to larger colleges and universities.

State residency doesn’t affect tuition rate creating a more diverse student body by encouraging out-of-state students to attend without needing to pay increased fees. Compared to community colleges, trade, and vocational schools, private colleges have considerably stricter admissions requirements. Applicants need a high school diploma or equivalent, and SAT or ACT and GPA scores within a particular range stipulated by the individual college. Students in private colleges usually live on or near campus.

Both liberal arts and Ivy League colleges and universities are private. Liberal arts colleges usually award undergraduate degrees and are known for their interdisciplinary approach. Amherst and Wellesley Colleges are well-known liberal arts colleges. Ivy League schools are high-competitive and have low acceptance rates. There are 8 total, including Yale and Princeton.

Public universities

Funded by state governments, public universities have state boards and trustees who oversee their operations. These institutions offer in-state tuition, which is usually lower than private colleges and universities. Public institutions generally have a large student population, offer a wider spectrum of disciplines, and confer graduate degrees.

Admissions requirements for public universities are similar to private institutions. Most public universities support research by master’s and doctoral students. The University of Florida, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and University of California at Berkeley are traditional public universities.

Other institutions

In addition to the basic types of higher educational institutions, there are colleges and universities designed to meet more specific student needs. These schools cater to select student bodies and disciplines.

Art and design schools

Students with an interest in the arts can opt to enroll in programs offered by art and design schools. These schools are sometimes extensions of existing universities, like the School of Art and Design at the University of Illinois. Other schools exist independently, such as the Parsons School of Design, the Pratt Institute, or the Julliard School.

Art and design schools offer associate, bachelor’s, and graduate degrees in specializations like fine art, film, illustration, graphic design, drama, dance, and photography. The most common degree awarded is a bachelor of fine art, or BFA. Admissions to these schools can be extremely competitive. In addition to a high school diploma, GPA and test scores, applicants typically submit a portfolio of sample works and may need to audition.

Institutes of technology

Students who know they want to specialize in engineering, technology, applied sciences, and natural sciences often attend institutes of technology. This type of school includes career-oriented programs and awards both undergraduate and graduate degrees. These schools include public institutions such as Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech) as well as private schools like California Institute of Technology (Caltech).

Historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs)

These unique colleges and universities emerged in the 1860s as a result of racial discrimination in existing institutions of the time. HBCUs now accept all races, though the majority of the student population in most continues to be Black. Some well-known HBCUs include Howard University, Morehouse College, and Spelman College. Of the 100 total HBCUs currently available, 51 are public.

Religiously affiliated

Historically, many colleges and universities were associated with a religion. These institutions only accepted students identified with the target affiliated faith and incorporated religious themes in their coursework and campus culture. Today, some still operate based on religious traditions, maintaining certain rules and practices based on their affiliation.

Brigham Young University, for example, is operated by the Church of Jesus Christ and Latter-day Saints (BYU). While BYU also accepts students of other faiths, all students have to follow certain rules based on the university’s religiously-oriented code of conduct.

There are far more colleges with historical affiliations than active faith-based practices. At these colleges, the student body is largely unaffected by their school’s affiliation. Boston College, for example, maintains a Roman Catholic Jesuit affiliation.

Women’s only

Although women are enrolling in college at considerably higher rates than men, the number of colleges originally founded to admit only women is declining. In the 1950s, it was determined that these colleges violated the Equal Protection Clause, causing many to dissolve. Still, today there are 37 women’s colleges and universities.

While these colleges admit all genders, student populations are majority female, ranging from 87%-100%. These often private, liberal arts colleges are designed to offer women an opportunity to thrive in areas like STEM fields where they are traditionally underrepresented. Women who attend women’s colleges and universities are more likely to graduate and develop marketable skills compared to those studying at public universities.

Tribal schools

Tribal colleges and universities were founded to preserve and restore the languages and cultural traditions of American Indian and Alaska Native tribes. There are currently 32 Tribal Colleges and Universities (TCUs) offering degrees, certificates, and even apprenticeships. These institutions are often located in economically depressed, rural areas and sometimes serve as a base for their local community’s social services. With a graduation rate of 86%, these schools serve an important role in supporting those most underserved by the traditional higher education system.

Military colleges

There are 5 service academies provided by the United States military. Each institution is divided into service academics, senior military colleges, and military junior colleges. The basic academies are as follows:

  • Military Academy
  • Naval Academy
  • Air Force Academy
  • Coast Guard Academy
  • Marchant Marie Academy

These schools provide students an opportunity to simultaneously serve in the military while pursing a college degree. Students at these schools undergo military instruction along side a bachelor of science degree, and most graduates aim to find a job in the military upon graduation. In exchange for a service commitment of at least 5 years, accepted applicants do not pay tuition, or room and board.

Closing words

Your final choice of school ultimately depends on a culmination of factors. Your career goals, academic interests, and personal circumstances can all contribute to the final decision. It is not uncommon to attend more than one school, whether to complete certain career credentials or when finding the right institution for your academic goals. With plenty of research and clear goals, you can find the school that is best for you.

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