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What are the different types of colleges in the US

interstride logo by Interstride
October 27, 2022

The US higher education landscape is very different from other countries with many types of colleges to choose from. International students should research and consider several key factors when choosing a US college. Whether you are an international or domestic student, you can use this guide to explore different types of colleges to apply to.

Public vs. private colleges and universities

Public colleges and universities are funded by local and state governments. These schools often have lower tuition than private colleges and universities. The cost of public school varies depending on what state you are in and the prestige of the school. Residents of the state usually pay lower tuition than students from out of state. However, some public universities in the US such as the University of South Carolina offer in-state tuition to international students from certain countries to encourage them to attend.

Another benefit of public universities is that they usually have a large variety of majors and programs to choose from. Large public universities in the US are often heavily focused on research, but you will find that there are also many private research institutions like the University of Chicago. Both public and private research universities offer students opportunities to study in laboratories and learn independently. If you are looking for more focus on academic instruction and support from faculty, consider a private, non-research-based college or university. 

Private colleges and universities are funded by private sources, such as tuition and private donations. These schools may be more expensive than public ones, but they often offer larger financial aid packages for students. Financial aid may be needs-based, merit-based, or both. Private universities and colleges may also have more specialized foci which is ideal if you are certain about the field of study you want to pursue. 

College vs. university

You may also be wondering about the difference between a college and university. The university definition is a higher-learning institution that offers multiple undergraduate and graduate-level degree programs. On the other hand, colleges are generally smaller institutions that usually only offer undergraduate degrees and may have fewer program options.

Rural vs. urban vs. surburban

Your college experience will be very different depending on which part of the country you are in.

Urban areas and major cities like Los Angeles and New York City often have a higher cost of living; however, you may find more diversity and things to do off-campus in cities than in suburban and rural areas. Urban areas also tend to be more politically and socially liberal. This means they may be more accepting of international students than rural areas. 

At colleges and universities in rural areas, there is often more on-campus housing, and you will likely spend a lot of time on campus. This means schools in rural areas often have a strong sense of community which allows each student to feel like they belong. Schools in suburban areas offer the best features of both urban and rural schools, with proximity to city conveniences as well as nature and outdoor recreation.  

Unfortunately, many rural and suburban areas do not have any public transportation, so you will need a car and a U.S. driver’s license to leave campus. International students may be surprised to find that some urban areas in the U.S. also do not have efficient public transportation. Northern cities like New York, Chicago, and Boston are easy to navigate without a car. Southern cities like Houston, Dallas, and Atlanta are not.

Learn more about what factors to consider when choosing the right college or university in the US from Interstride’s blog. 

What are specialized colleges and universities?

There are many types of specialized colleges in the US. These are schools that specialize in a specific field of study such as STEM or specialize in supporting a specific demographic of students. 

1) Liberal Arts

Liberal arts colleges are schools that focus on undergraduate degree programs in the liberal arts fields. The programs are designed to help students develop strong critical thinking skills, problem-solving abilities, and written and verbal communication skills. Liberal arts colleges often offer smaller class sizes and more personalized attention from professors than large universities. 

Some examples of liberal art college degree programs are:

  • History
  • Literature
  • Philosophy
  • Sociology
  • Psychology

2) HBCUs

Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) focus on advancing education and opportunities for Black Americans. This includes providing community and strong role models for Black students. These schools developed because of the history of racial discrimination and segregation in the US. However, HBCUs now accept students from all races including international students.

Top HBCUs in the US:

3) Women’s Colleges

Similarly to HBCUs, women’s colleges in the US developed because other schools excluded women in the past. These colleges focus on empowering women and often have more female staff and professors than traditional colleges. This means there are more female role models for students. Women’s colleges also provide networking opportunities to increase the professional opportunities for women in the US. Most women’s colleges do not admit male students.

Top Women’s Colleges in the US:

4) Art Schools

Some colleges in the US focus specifically on the arts. They may offer certificates, associate degrees, and/or bachelor’s degrees in specific fields such as:

  • Theater
  • Animation
  • Fashion design
  • Music production
  • Photography

For international students interested in working in the US after you graduate, look into art programs that are designated by the art school as STEM majors. These may include architecture, digital communications, and special effects. Certain STEM majors qualify for Optional Practical Training (OPT) with an F-1 student visa which allows you to work in the US for up to three years after graduation. 

More higher education options

In addition to traditional four-year bachelor’s degree programs, the US has colleges that offer associate, master’s, and doctoral degrees. Some students earn an associate degree at a community college before earning a bachelor’s. A master’s and/or doctoral degree is earned after a bachelor’s degree.

Community and junior colleges

Community colleges offer associate degrees which take about two years to complete when attending school full-time. These schools are sometimes called junior colleges or city colleges depending on the area of the country. They are often more affordable than four-year colleges but offer easy ways to transfer to a university to complete a bachelor’s degree using the credits you already earned. This helps to lessen the cost of a degree in the US; however, international students usually have to pay extra fees.

Some community colleges like Green River College offer employment and admissions support to domestic and international students. Community college can act as a stepping stone to a university in theUS for students who are not able to get into a four-year school immediately after high school.  

Graduate schools

In the US, graduate school, or grad school, refers to any program where you earn a master’s or doctoral degree such as an M.S. or a Ph.D. These programs require a bachelor’s degree to apply. International students may attend graduate school in the US with an undergraduate degree from a qualifying institution regardless of whether it’s from another country or the US. 

Graduate school is very different from undergraduate school in that the programs and classes are smaller with more support from an academic advisor. The classwork is more difficult and evaluation more rigorous. Graduate students are usually required to conduct original research and complete a thesis or dissertation to receive their degree. 

Stay informed and find the right school for you

Understanding all the different types of colleges and universities in the US is the first step to making sure you apply to the schools that will be the best fit for you. Sign up for Interstride’s newsletter for more resources for current and prospective international students.