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Types of Colleges

Is a college the same thing as a university? What does "liberal arts" mean? Why are some colleges called public and others private? Here are the basics on the types of colleges.

Four-Year and Two-Year Colleges:

Four-year colleges offer four-year programs that lead to a bachelor's degree. These include universities and liberal arts colleges.

Two-year colleges offer programs that last up to two years that lead to a certificate or an associate degree. These include community colleges, vocational-technical colleges and career colleges.

Public and Private Colleges:

Public colleges are funded by local and state governments and usually offer lower tuition rates than private colleges, especially for students who are residents of the state where a college is located.

Examples of public colleges include: University of Illinois at Chicago, University of Wisconsin at Madison, Indiana University, University of California at Los Angeles, Grand Valley State University, and Colorado State University

Private colleges rely mainly on tuition, fees and private sources of funding. Private donations can sometimes provide generous financial aid packages for students.

Examples of private colleges include: University of Vermont, University of Denver, Lake Forest College, Washington University in St. Louis, University of Notre Dame, University of Chicago, Boston College, and Duke University.

Liberal Arts & Sciences:

A liberal arts and sciences education is broad. You’ll study literature, languages, and the natural and social sciences. There also might be options to study computer science and business, to set up a career internship, and to study abroad for a term.  Most are private and offer four-year programs that lead to a bachelor's degree.

Studies have shown that a liberal arts education makes you a careful reasoner and a creative and flexible thinker. You’ll learn to speak and write persuasively and to solve complex problems. All of these are qualities that employers and graduate programs value.

A liberal arts education will help you understand the world around you and develop your interests, talents and values. If you enjoy a variety of subjects and think you could succeed in a number of areas, then you probably should consider the liberal arts and sciences.

Examples of liberal arts and sciences colleges include: Lake Forest College, Beloit College, Illinois Wesleyan University, Grinnell College, Lawrence University, Kalamazoo College, Macalester College, Knox College, Oberlin College, Trinity College, Augustana College, DePauw University, and Valparaiso University. 


Universities often are larger and offer more majors and degree options—bachelor's, master's and doctoral degrees—than colleges. Most universities contain several smaller colleges, such as colleges of liberal arts, engineering or health sciences. These colleges can prepare you for a variety of careers or for graduate study.

Examples of Universities include: University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, University of Iowa, Boston University,  Yale University, Purdue University, University of Southern California, and Michigan State University. 

Community Colleges:

Community colleges offer two-year associate degrees that prepare you to transfer to a four-year college to earn a bachelor's degree. They also offer other associate degrees and certificates that focus on preparing you for a certain career. Community colleges are often an affordable option with relatively low tuition.

Examples of community colleges include: City Colleges of Chicago (Truman, Wright, Washington, Malcom X, Kennedy-King, Daley, and Olive-Harvey), Oakton Community College, Morton College, and College of DuPage.

Vocational-Technical and Career Colleges:

Vocational-technical and career colleges offer specialized training in a particular industry or career. Possible programs of study include the culinary arts, firefighting, dental hygiene and medical-records technology. These colleges usually offer certificates or associate degrees.

Examples of vocational-technical and career colleges include: Kendall College, DeVry University, Chamberlin College of Nursing, and IIT Technical Institute. 

Arts Colleges:

Art colleges and conservatories focus on the arts. In addition to regular course work, these colleges provide training in areas such as photography, music, theater or fashion design. Most of these colleges offer associate or bachelor's degrees in the fine arts or a specialized field.

Examples of arts colleges include: San Fransisco School of Art & Deign, Illinois Institute of Art & Design, Savannah College of Art, Kansas City Art Institute, and New Hampshire Institute of Art. 

Specialized-Mission Colleges:

Historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) focus on educating African American students. Hispanic-serving institutions (HSIs) are colleges where at least 25 percent of the full-time undergraduate students are Hispanic. HBCUs and HSIs may offer programs, services and activities targeted to the underrepresented students they serve.

Examples of HBCUs include: Howard University, Clark Atlanta University, Tennessee State University, Dillard Univeristy, and Spelman College.

Examples of HSIs include: Northeastern Illinois University, Morton College, and Valencia College

For-Profit Colleges

These are businesses that offer a variety of degree programs which typically prepare students for a specific career. They tend to have higher costs, which could mean graduating with more debt. Credits earned may not transfer to other colleges, so be sure to check with the admission office at each college.

Examples of for-profit colleges include: University of Phoenix, Westwood College, IIT Technical Institute, Kaplan University, Everest College, and Le Cordon Bleu.