types of higher education institutions

A Guide to Different Types of Higher Education Institutions in the U.S.


From research universities to liberal arts colleges, community colleges to vocational schools, the U.S. higher education system provides various options for students seeking post-secondary education. 

Understanding the different types of higher education institutions in the U.S. can help you make informed decisions about your academic and career paths. Let’s explore the different types of universities in the U.S. and what characteristics each one of them entails before you start applying.

Types of Universities in the U.S.


Universities are higher education institutions, often referred to as post-secondary education institutions, which usually last up to four years. Although similar in function, universities have their differences when it comes to core ideals.

From public universities to Ivy League schools, here is what differentiates them and what they have in common.

Public universities

Public universities are higher education institutions that are funded by public means, meaning they are state-funded as opposed to private universities. These universities vary in size; however, they are often bigger than private ones and are characterized by lower tuition costs. 

Public universities tend to enroll more commuters and part-time students. For those seeking to save money, these universities are the affordable option. However, international students that wish to enroll will have to pay higher fees than domestic students at such universities.

Private universities

Private universities are not funded by the state government, and they account for a significant number of enrollments in the U.S. However, because they rely on primarily donations, endowments, and tuition itself, these universities tend to have higher tuition fees than public universities.

International and domestic students alike are on par when it comes to tuition costs in private universities. Although they’re more costly, many of these institutions offer financial aid or a range of scholarships, which can either minimize costs or take care of them completely.

For-profit private universities

For-profit private universities differentiate from non-profit ones because their aim is not only to educate students but to generate revenue for the share-holders and they tend to gravitate towards money-making. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean that these universities don’t deliver quality education as well. In fact, there are many for-profit private universities with great curriculums.

Non-profit private universities

Non-profit private universities’ main purpose is not to be the most profitable institution, rather offer high-quality education. These institutions generally have a better reputation than for-profit ones due to their attention being more focused on producing high-quality curriculums and education. 

Bay Atlantic University (BAU) is one of the non-profit private universities in the U.S. and has numerous scholarships awarded to both domestic and international students.

Research universities

Research universities can be public and non-profit private universities, which are regarded as doctorate degree-granting institutions that spend millions in research expenditures and have high research activities. 

There are 131 such institutions in the U.S., which include all eight Ivy League universities and other highly regarded universities, and many public universities.

Ivy League schools

Ivy League schools consist of eight Northeastern U.S. based universities and is an American collegiate athletic conference. However, the bond between these universities goes beyond sports, and they are all regarded for their academic excellence, social elitism, and admission selectivity. 

The eight Ivy League schools include:

  • Harvard University
  • Princeton University
  • Brown University
  • Dartmouth University
  • Cornell University
  • University of Pennsylvania
  • Columbia University
  • Yale University

Types of Colleges in the U.S.



Colleges, as opposed to universities, will usually take less time to complete, with an average of two years to graduate. However, there are also numerous four-year colleges, which are often akin to universities. Colleges, similar to universities, differ from each other and are separated into several kinds. 

Here are the college types, what they have in common, and what they don’t.

Liberal arts colleges

Liberal arts colleges are mostly non-profit private colleges (there are a number of public liberal arts colleges) that are relatively small in size, and they offer programs in humanities, sciences, and social sciences. They tend to put emphasis on an undergraduate and well-rounded education rather than research, and they generally don’t focus on athletics.

These colleges will usually offer different type of degrees instead of breaking one degree into a few branches. They tend to focus on the more academic side of higher education rather than vocational skills.

✅ Request information on BAU's programs TODAY!

Community colleges

Community colleges, sometimes referred to as junior colleges, are primarily two-year higher education institutions. They provide lower-level tertiary education, and they grant associate degrees, diplomas, and certificates. For the most part, these institutions attract local students and are usually funded by local tax revenue.

Many college students use community college as a stepping stone to a four-year university or a liberal arts college. Although the term junior college is used to describe community colleges; junior college refers to private two-year colleges, whereas community college refers to public two-year colleges.

Other colleges

Other than liberal art colleges and community colleges, there are

  • Religious colleges
  • Same-sex colleges
  • Specialized colleges
  • Art colleges
  • For-profit colleges

These colleges can be either public or private, and often very similar to community colleges in function, but with a specific set of rules that are unique to each institution.

The Bottom Line 

The United States offers a diverse range of higher education institutions, including research universities, liberal arts colleges, community colleges, and specialized institutions. Each type of institution has its own unique characteristics and strengths, catering to students’ diverse needs and aspirations.

By understanding the different types of institutions available, you can make informed decisions about your higher education pathways and find the best fit for your academic and personal development.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

What are the main types of higher education institutions in the U.S.?

There are primarily four types:

  • Public Universities
  • Private Universities
  • Community Colleges
  • Liberal Arts Colleges

What distinguishes public universities from private universities?

Public universities are funded by state governments and typically have larger student bodies and a wider range of programs.

Private universities rely on tuition, donations, and endowments, often offering smaller class sizes and more personalized attention.

What is the difference between community colleges and four-year institutions?

Community colleges offer two-year programs leading to associate degrees or certificates. They are often more affordable and accessible, serving local communities and providing pathways to further education or the workforce.

Four-year institutions offer bachelor’s degrees and beyond, with a broader array of academic programs and research opportunities.

What defines liberal arts colleges?

Liberal arts colleges focus on undergraduate education and offer a broad curriculum covering humanities, social sciences, natural sciences, and sometimes professional fields.

They typically emphasize critical thinking, writing, and communication skills, with smaller class sizes and close interaction between students and faculty.

Are there differences in cost between these types of institutions?

Yes, there can be significant differences. Public universities often offer lower tuition rates for in-state residents compared to out-of-state or private institutions.

Community colleges are typically the most affordable option, while private universities tend to have higher tuition rates but may offer more financial aid.

Can I transfer between these types of institutions?

Yes, transfer policies vary by institution, but many students start at a community college and transfer to a four-year institution to complete their bachelor’s degrees. It’s essential to research transfer requirements and consult with academic advisors to ensure a smooth transition.

You May Also Like