Types of Institutions
Types of Institutions

There is a lot of confusion about the different types of colleges and universities in the United States. This page introduces the main types along with general descriptions.
Colleges, Universities, and Institutes: The Distinction

Degree-granting institutions in the United States can be called by any of these terms, and colleges and institutes are in no way inferior to universities. As a general rule, colleges tend to be smaller than universities and usually do not offer doctoral degrees, while a university offers a wide range of graduate programs, including doctoral degrees. Universities emphasize research as well as teaching (traditionally a strength of colleges), and universities that offer doctoral programs are usually referred to as research universities. The words "school," "college," and "university" are used interchangeably throughout this section.

An institute usually specializes in degree programs in a group of closely related subject areas, so you will also come across degree programs offered at institutes of technology, institutes of fashion, institutes of art and design, and so on. Research centers offer graduate degrees or research and training opportunities, and they may or may not be affiliated with universities.

Within each institution you may find schools such as the school of arts and sciences or school of business. Each school is responsible for the degree programs offered by the college or university in that area of study.

Private and Public Institutions

Both public and private universities offer degree programs. The terms "public" and "private" refer to the way in which universities are financially supported.

Public universities may also be called state universities, and some include the words "state university" in their title or include a regional element such as "eastern" or "northern." State universities tend to be very large with enrollments of 20,000 or more students. Since public universities obtain a part of their support from the state in which they are located, the tuition they charge is often lower than that charged by private institutions. In addition, public institutions generally charge lower tuition to state residents (those who live and pay taxes in the state) than to students coming from outside the state. International students are considered out-of-state residents and therefore do not benefit from reduced tuition at most state institutions.

Private institutions are supported by student tuition, investment income, research contracts, and private donations. Tuition fees tend to be higher at private universities than at state universities, and they charge the same tuition to all students, both state and non-state residents. Colleges with a religious affiliation and single-sex colleges are private. In general, private universities have enrollments of fewer than 20,000 students, and private colleges may have 2,000 or fewer students on their campuses.

Except for financial considerations, the public or private nature of a university should not be a factor in selecting a graduate program. High quality programs exist in both types of institutions. Of more importance is the institution's commitment to the graduate program. This commitment is found in its willingness to maintain a first-class faculty and to provide excellent facilities for advanced study, including libraries, laboratories, computers, and other equipment. Another important factor to consider in many disciplines is the presence of strong departments in other fields relevant to your interests so that you can have access to scholars and courses in disciplines related to your own.