Types of Institutions
Types of Institutions

There is a lot of confusion about the different types of learning institutions 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 and usually offer only undergraduate degrees, while a university also offers graduate degrees. The words "school," "college," and "university" will be used interchangeably throughout this booklet. 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.

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

State Universities

State universities are founded and subsidized by U.S. state governments (for example, California, Michigan, or Texas) to provide low-cost education to residents of that state. They may also be called public universities to distinguish them from private institutions. 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, and generally admit a wider range of students than private universities. State university tuition costs are generally lower than those of private universities. Also, in-state residents (those who live and pay taxes in that particular state) pay much lower tuition than out-of-state residents. International students, as well as those from other states, are considered out-of-state residents and therefore do not benefit from reduced tuition at state institutions. In addition, international students may have to fulfill higher admission requirements than in-state residents.

Private Universities

Private institutions are funded by a combination of endowments, tuition fees, research grants, and gifts from their alumni. Tuition fees tend to be higher at private universities than at state universities, but there is no distinction made between 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.

Community Colleges

Community colleges provide two-year associate degree programs, usually called the associate of arts (A.A.) or associate of science (A.S.) degrees, as well as excellent technical and vocational programs. As the name suggests, community colleges are community-based institutions with close links to secondary schools, community groups, and employers, and many U.S. students live close to campus with their families. Community colleges can be public or private institutions and are sometimes called junior colleges or two-year colleges. A growing number of international students are choosing to study at community colleges. Tuition costs are often lower at two-year than at four-year institutions, and many have agreements to allow students on transfer programs to move easily into the third year of a bachelor's degree at the local state university.

Read "U.S. Community Colleges — A Gateway to U.S. Higher Education for International Students" by Judith Irwin, Director of International Programs and Services for the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC).

Technical and Vocational Colleges

These institutions specialize in preparing students for entry into, or promotion within, the world of work. They offer certificate and other short-term programs that train students in the theory behind a specific vocation or technology, as well as in how to work with the technology. Programs usually last two years or less. There are several thousand technical and vocational colleges across the United States, and they may be private or public institutions. Further information is provided in 'Short-Term Study.'
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