Understanding Different Types of Colleges

Researching different types of colleges

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Colleges and universities in the United State can be divided into two categories: four-year colleges and two-year colleges. Within those categories, there are a variety of subdivisions and distinctions between schools. The following article explains the differences between types of colleges to help you make the best decision when considering your higher education options. 

Key Takeaways

  • Colleges and universities can be divided into two-year institutions and four-year institutions.
  • Four-year institutions include public and private colleges and universities as well as liberal arts colleges.
  • Two-year institutions include community colleges, trade schools, and for-profit universities.
  • Other institutional distinctions include Historically Black Colleges and Universities, women’s colleges, and Tribal Colleges and Universities. 

Four-Year Colleges

A four-year college is an institution of higher learning that provides programs of study that take approximately four academic years to complete. Students that complete these programs earn bachelor’s degrees.

Four-year colleges are the most common institutions of higher education in the United States. According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), undergraduate enrollment in four-year colleges is 65 percent, nearly 11 million students.

These institutions often include strong student communities, complete with sports teams and extracurricular activities, students clubs and organizations, student body leadership, on-campus housing opportunities, Greek life, and more. Harvard University, University of Michigan, Carroll College, and Bates College are all examples of four-year institutions, though they are all different types of colleges. 

Public vs. Private

Public colleges and universities are owned and operated by the state board of education within the state where the college is located. Funding for public institutions comes from state and federal taxes, as well as student tuition and fees, and private donors. Boise State University and the University of California are examples of public universities.

Private institutions are owned and operated by individuals or organizations and do not receive federal or state funding. Private institutions often receive funding from alumni and corporate and individual donations. Though private institutions are not operated by the state in which they are located, they must still meet state and federal criteria in order to be accredited academic institutions. Yale University and Notre Dame University are examples of private universities.

College vs. University 

Traditionally, a college was a small, often private institution that only offered undergraduate programs, while universities were larger institutions that offered undergraduate, graduate, and doctoral degrees. Since these two terms have been commonly used to describe four-year institutions—and many small colleges began offering graduate and doctoral degree programs—the terms college and university are now completely interchangeable.  

Liberal Arts Colleges

Liberal arts colleges are four-year institutions that focus on the liberal arts: humanities, social and physical sciences, and mathematics. Liberal arts colleges are often small, private institutions with higher tuition rates and lower student-to-teacher ratios. Students at liberal arts colleges are encouraged to engage in interdisciplinary academia. Swarthmore College and Middlebury College are examples of liberal arts colleges. 

Two-Year Colleges

Two-year colleges provide lower-level higher education, commonly known as continuing education. Students that complete programs at two-year institutions can receive certifications or associates degrees. Hudson County Community College, Fox Valley Technical College, and the University of Phoenix are different examples of two-year institutions. Approximately 35 percent of undergraduates are enrolled in two-year institutions, according to the NCES.

Many students choose to enroll in two-year institutions to obtain associate’s (or two-year) degrees before attending a bigger, often more expensive four-year institution to obtain a bachelor’s degree. This cuts down on the cost of general education requirements, making college more achievable for many students. Other undergraduates enroll in two-year programs because they provide job-specific training and a direct pathway to a career.  

Community Colleges

Sometimes called junior college, community colleges offer higher education opportunities within communities. These courses are often geared toward working professionals, with classes offered outside of regular working hours. Students often use community colleges to gain job-specific certifications or as affordable stepping stones for completing bachelor’s degrees. Western Wyoming Community College and Odessa College are examples of community or junior colleges. 

Trade Schools

Also called vocational schools or technical colleges, trade schools provide technical skills for specific careers. Students that complete trade school programs can move directly into the workforce with ease. Students at trade schools often become dental hygienists, electricians, plumbers, computer technicians, and more. North Central Kansas Technical College and the State Technical College of Missouri are both examples of trade schools.

For-Profit Schools

For-profit colleges are educational institutions that are privately owned and operated. They run like a business, selling education as the product. For-profit schools can provide bachelor’s and master’s degrees, as well as technical education, though these programs are often offered online or via distance learning.

According to the NCES, enrollment in for-profit institutions has increased by 109 percent since 2000, though that number has been declining since the financial crisis in 2007. 

Other Types of Colleges

Schools either fall into the two or four-year college categories, but there are a variety of other distinctions between colleges that make the campuses stand out.

Historically Black Colleges and Universities

Historically Black College and Universities, or HBCUs, are educational institutions founded before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 with the goal of providing higher education to African-American students. There are 101 HBCUs in the United States, both private and public. HBCUs admit students of all ethnicities. Howard University and Morehouse College are examples of HBCUs.

Women’s Colleges

Women’s colleges are education institutions founded to provide single-sex education for women; these institutions only admit female students. Traditionally, women’s colleges prepared women for assigned societal roles, such as teaching, but they evolved into degree-granting academic institutions after World War II. There are 38 women’s colleges in the United States. Bryn Mawr College and Wesleyan College are examples of women’s colleges.

Tribal Colleges and Universities

Tribal Colleges and Universities are accredited educational institutions that provide undergraduate, graduate, and doctoral degrees as well as vocational training to both Native and non-Native students with curricula designed to pass on tribal history and culture. These institutions are operated by Native American tribes and are located on or near reservations. There are 32 accredited Tribal Colleges and Universities operating in the United States. Oglala Lakota College and Sitting Bull College are examples of tribal colleges.


  • Fain, Paul. “Enrollment Slide Continues, at Slower Rate .” Inside Higher Ed , 20 Dec. 2017.
  • “More Than 76 Million Students Enrolled in U.S. Schools.” Census.gov, U.S. Census Bureau, 11 Dec. 2018.
  • “Undergraduate Enrollment .” The Condition of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, May 2019.
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Perkins, McKenzie. "Understanding Different Types of Colleges." ThoughtCo, Aug. 2, 2021, thoughtco.com/types-of-colleges-4689039. Perkins, McKenzie. (2021, August 2). Understanding Different Types of Colleges. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/types-of-colleges-4689039 Perkins, McKenzie. "Understanding Different Types of Colleges." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/types-of-colleges-4689039 (accessed June 10, 2023).