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Guide to Different Types of Colleges and Universities

During your college search, you’ve probably found that institutions of higher learning don’t all fit into the same category. In fact, there’s many different types of colleges and universities. You’ve got public and private schools, liberal arts and research-focused schools, and even two-year and four-year schools. So where do we begin?

For starters, you should know there’s a difference between colleges and universities. The main difference is that colleges exclusively offer undergraduate degrees, while universities offer advanced degrees such as master’s and doctorates as well. Other differences include student population, program offerings, research focus, and cost of attendance. Learn more about the differences between colleges and universities here

Think of colleges and universities as the two main types of schools, with all other institutions generally falling into subcategories. In this guide, we’ll discuss the various types of colleges and universities you should know about. 

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Let’s start by going over the different types of colleges. As opposed to universities, colleges only offer one type of degree and tend to be on the smaller side. However, not all colleges are the same. Let’s break down the differences. 

Liberal arts colleges

Liberal arts colleges are four-year institutions that offer bachelor’s degrees. Rather than specializing in a single academic area, liberal arts colleges provide students with a well-rounded education that touches on many fields of learning. 

Students at liberal arts schools usually study a broad range of subjects including humanities, creative arts, mathematics, and science. Ultimately, students narrow their focus by picking a major. However, students have exposure to the liberal arts curriculum through required general education courses. 

Liberal arts colleges tend to have small student populations, which means classes are smaller and instruction from professors is more individualized. Additionally, most liberal arts colleges are private and have lower-than-average admission rates. The NESCAC schools are a well-known group of liberal arts colleges. 

Community colleges

Also referred to as junior colleges, community colleges are two-year institutions that primarily award associate degrees for specific areas of study. Community colleges generally have low tuition rates, making them an affordable alternative to traditional four-year schools. They’re also popular among students looking to earn a degree and launch their career in a shorter amount of time. After obtaining their associate degree, some students choose to immediately enter the workforce. Others transfer to a four-year college or university to pursue their bachelor’s degree. 

Also see: Top reasons to attend a community college

Technical and Vocational Colleges

Also known as trade schools, technical and vocational colleges provide specialized training for specific professional fields. Students go on to pursue careers in fields such as carpentry, automotive maintenance, HVAC, information technology, nursing, and cosmetology. Courses are tailored for specific industries and general education classes are generally excluded. 

Because they’re so focused, technical colleges usually have short program lengths ranging from eight months to two years. Instead of graduating with a bachelor’s degree like students at a four-year college, trade school students earn a diploma or trade certificate upon completion of their program. Technical colleges are ideal for students who want to launch their careers as quickly as possible. 


Like colleges, there are different types of universities. The main distinction you should know about is between private and public universities. Keep reading for a brief breakdown. 

Private Universities 

Private universities offer four-year bachelor’s degree programs along with master’s degree and PhD programs. These schools typically have smaller student bodies, higher tuition rates, and oftentimes emphasize the liberal arts. Private universities also tend to be more selective. If you’re thinking that private universities sound a lot like liberal arts colleges, you’re right. However, private universities offer access to advanced degree programs and more opportunities for research. The Ivy League schools are the most well-known private universities. 

Public Universities 

Like private universities, most public universities also offer bachelor’s degrees, master’s degrees, and sometimes PhDs. However, public universities generally have larger student bodies and lower tuition rates than private universities. They also tend to be fairly research-oriented and place less emphasis on the liberal arts. Acceptance rates vary widely, but you can generally expect public universities to be less selective than private schools. Well-known public universities include the Big 10 schools, Big 12 schools, and Public Ivies

Colleges and Universities with a Special Focus

Now that we’ve covered the main types of post-secondary institutions, let’s talk about schools that have a special focus. Some institutions are designed to serve specific populations. You’ll notice that the following types of schools include both colleges and universities. 


Historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) are post-secondary institutions that have traditionally enrolled black students. The first HBCUs were created in the 1800s, during a time in America when black students were denied admission to institutions of higher learning. For a long time, HBCUs were the only schools where black Americans could receive a college education. 

While that is no longer the case, HBCUs are still a crucial part of higher education in the United States. These days, HBCUs enroll students of all races while maintaining majority black student populations. HBCUs fall into a wide range of categories, including public, private, two-year, four-year, liberal arts, research-based, and single-gender serving. There are currently 101 HBCUs in the United States and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Also see: Scholarships at HBCUs


Tribal Colleges and Universities (TCUs) are designed to serve the educational needs of Native American students. There are currently 32 accredited TCUs in the country, most of which are located in the Midwest and Southwest. Students can earn associate degrees, bachelor’s degrees, and sometimes master’s degrees at TCUs. These schools are a crucial part of the community they serve, enrolling a variety of students from young adults to senior citizens. Popular TCUs include Salish Kootenai College, Haskell Indian Nations University, and Northwest Indian College. 

Women’s Colleges

The purpose of these colleges is to serve the educational needs of women. They are typically private liberal arts schools. The first ones were founded in the 1800s to provide women with access to higher education. The number of women’s colleges peaked in the 1960s, when there were nearly 300 in the U.S. However, the rise of coeducational institutions has caused women’s colleges to lose much of their influence. Although there are fewer than 40 today, women’s colleges still serve an important purpose. Highly regarded women’s colleges include Wellesley College, Smith College, Barnard College, and Spelman College. 

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How do I know which school is right for me?

As you can see, there’s many different types of colleges and universities. Maybe at this point you have a better idea of the type of school you’d like to attend. If not, that’s okay too! We know it can be overwhelming to decide on a college when there’s so many out there. That’s why we put together this guide to help you choose a college that’s right for you. 

Also see: How many colleges should I apply to?