Liberal Arts? Private? Community? What? Figuring Out Higher Education in the USA.

The American higher education system can be a confusing beast to tackle. This is especially true if you’re from a place where all the universities are public, there isn’t such a thing as a ‘community college,’ and there are only a couple kinds of degrees available. Here, then, is what you’ve been looking for if you’re at your wit’s end and are feeling extremely confused about how to make sense of all the different kinds of higher education there are in the United States.

Public Universities

Let’s start with public universities. Public universities are generally larger, have lower tuition, more students, and are – naturally – funded by their state. Note that no universities are funded by the Federal government in Washington D.C., rather, each of the 50 states funds a system of state universities. They give preferential tuition and acceptance rates to students residing in their state. Because they’re usually so large public universities are the most likely institutions to have programs in your concentration. All offer standard four-year undergraduate degrees and most have graduate programs. Their size also dictates that they usually have very large housing complexes for undergrads. Many American students enroll at a public university after graduating from high school.

Private Universities

Private universities are very likely to offer traditional undergraduate and graduate degrees. They are generally more competitive than public universities and many would argue that the quality of education at private institutions is higher than that of public institutions due to the lower student-to-staff ratio (all of the Ivy League universities, such as Harvard and Yale, are private) and alumni network. Students that attend private universities are more likely to have moved there from a different city or state, and thus are more likely to live in arranged housing or residential dorms. Private universities are more expensive than public universities, but – in essence – offer the same product that public universities offer: a four-year undergraduate degree. The general reason students choose private universities over public universities is because of particular programs, styles of learning, religious affiliation or associated prestige.

Liberal Arts Colleges

A subcategory of private universities, liberal arts colleges sometimes offer alternative ‘takes’ (i.e. interpretations) on the four-year degree. The curricula is predominately is focused on the liberal arts and promotes a more general, wider reaching education through literature, languages, philosophy, history, mathematics and science. Liberal arts colleges tend to have smaller student bodies, smaller class sizes, and more prestige than public universities. They are also more likely to be residential and promote a stronger sense of community and personal attention for students due to their small size. If you need an analogy – one might compare a liberal arts college to a boutique shop while comparing a public university to a large department store.

Graduate Programs

Many universities (public and private) offer graduate programs which offer research-focused or professional education after a four-year undergraduate degree. Students in a master’s degree program, including business school, vary from one to two years, depending on the institution and the discipline. Degrees in other programs are longer, including medical, veterinary, law school, and PhD programs. Graduate schools are typically highly competitive, specialized, and can be expensive, especially for professional programs. However, in PhD programs tuition is generally sponsored by the university. Graduate programs are characterized by small class size, a heavy emphasis on experiential learning, research, and advanced coursework. The application process includes face-to-face interviews, essays, recommendation letters, and a general feeling of intense scrutiny.

Community or Junior Colleges

In addition to public and private universities, liberal arts colleges, and vocational schools, the United States has many community or junior colleges (the two terms are interchangeable). Community colleges typically do not offer four-year degrees, but rather, students get two-year degrees (most often an Associates degree) and sometime use this as a springboard for a four-year university. They are generally much less expensive than universities and liberal arts colleges. However, many would argue that the quality of education that community colleges offer is much lower than universities and liberal arts colleges as evidenced by lower entrance requirements. Community colleges are more directly geared toward providing training for the surrounding community focused on skills that local employers demand. The class sizes can be large and diverse in terms of age. Community colleges are not likely to offer on-site housing or housing assistance for foreign students. Students are most likely to enroll in community college directly after graduating from high school. Many students hope to eventually transfer to a four-year institution after completing a two-year degree. This can be a cost effective way of earning an undergraduate degree. 

Vocational Schools

Vocational schools or career colleges offer many of the same hands-on programs that community colleges offer but one generally earns a certification rather than a degree. Most people feel that a certification is inferior to a degree as the length of study is much shorter and not as well-rounded. The focus of a vocational school is typically on preparing students for jobs in the healthcare industry, such medical and dental assistants or pharmacy technicians, and in technical fields, such as computer programming certifications. Other fields of study may include nutrition and massage. These schools are typically private for-profit companies and are generally much more expensive than the community colleges.

So – there you have it. The StudentRoads overview of the American higher education system. It’s not that complicated, is it? No. Well – maybe. But now you have this reference article to guide you through it! And all that’s left is deciding which one’s right for you.

[Top image credit: Ron Chapple Studios/Thinkstock; Second image credit: Creatas Images/Creatas/Thinkstock] 

© 2012 StudentRoads. All rights reserved. Do not reprint without permission.

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