Back to the Basics

Updated: Jun 15


It’s never too early to begin shopping for the right college, even if the reality of starting that chapter in life seems far away. Before setting foot on those college campuses, however, it can be helpful to have a common understanding of “college 101.” Therefore, I thought I would include some fundamental information on the college landscape and what distinctions exist between types of institutions and what they have to offer. I will be posting a “part 2” later on which will breakdown many distinguishing factors to help sort out colleges. Once you have this information (part 1 and part 2), you will have the context to go forward with a better understanding of your environment when visiting a particular campus and hopefully narrow down the options, culminating with a list of schools meeting your student’s learning style, personality, and priorities. Well, enough of an introduction…let’s begin!


According to National Center for Education Statistics, as of 2018 there were 4,313 degree granting institutions in the U.S. and 2,828 of them were 4-year institutions…not a small number. And to make matters more complicated, those 2,828 are represented by non-profit, for-profit, public, private, and accredited and unaccredited colleges and universities!


So with that in mind, there are four major distinctions to consider to help make sense of all these options:

University vs College

Non-Profit vs For Profit

Public vs Private

Accredited vs Unaccredited


University vs College

Keep in mind that the below commentary is reflecting the generalities of colleges and universities. There are always exceptions to the rules. Many institutions, based on their size and mission, may have “university” in their title but resemble more of a college setting or vice versa.


Universities are generally larger and broader in scope when it comes to areas of study, pre-professional programs and the number of clubs and organizations offered. They are the “big city” of academia and include endless opportunities for a student but also have the risk of making that student potentially feel lost or invisible. Universities exist, in part, as mega-research centers, where many faculty prioritize their careers in researching their field, which trickles down to graduate and undergraduate student research opportunities. Graduate programs are a must to be classified as a university. Generally, the student to faculty ratio is higher and the classroom setting is larger.


Colleges are intentionally smaller settings with less options in areas of study as well as clubs and organizations. The small population usually points to much smaller class sizes. The main function of a college revolves around teaching and learning, thus attracting faculty members who, in large part, are there to teach students rather than research their field. Does research exist at many colleges? Yes, but you won’t find it as much of a priority. Traditionally, colleges do not offer graduate degrees, providing more attention and resources for undergraduates. Colleges often have a strong focus or theme which makes them distinct, such as liberal arts, the great books, unique school calendars or intentionally religious environments.


Non-Profit vs For Profit

Non-profit colleges and universities are distinguished, first and foremost, by their source of funding.


Non-profits are funded through tuition dollars, donations and the state/federal government. Their business models prioritize the funding to directly impact the education and campus experience. In most cases, non-profit institutions cater to the traditional aged college student and offer a wide variety of majors and concentrations.


Whereas a majority of the “big name” colleges and universities that come to mind are non-profit, there are still close to 1,000 degree granting for-profit institutions out there! These schools receive their funding from tuition alone and their business model points to profiting their stake holders, as any for profit companies would. They normally pour a larger portion of their budget into marketing and recruiting and often offer an avenue for the non-traditionally aged student (established adults already in their profession or seeking a career change). It is common for these schools to specialize in a specific industry, rather than offer a large variety of career options.


Public vs Private

There are more key differences between these two categories than just lower cost vs higher cost.


Public colleges and universities are run as entities of the state government and consequently there are pros and cons to this. They can be much less expensive for residents of the state because of government funding, but on the other hand have less autonomy and sometimes find themselves impacted by the political landscape. In most cases, publics are established as universities rather than colleges. Merit scholarships may be less prolific in light of the already more affordable cost of attendance.


Private colleges or universities receive funding from donors in addition to tuition. Yes, their sticker price is high compared to public schools, but depending on how large the school’s endowment is or how they prioritize their budget, they may offer very enticing scholarships and/or financial aid, thus competing with local state schools in cost of attendance depending on the student. Private institutions have more autonomy and therefore are free to prioritize a mission or create an intentional environment they see as beneficial, such as religious or liberal arts.


Accredited vs Non-Accredited

This is a category that can often go overlooked. And as obvious it may seem to prioritize choosing a school that is accredited, many folks out there have earned degrees that hold no value because the school they received them from has no accreditation.


The first clear sign that a school is not accredited is if they do not offer federal student financial aid, such as the Pell Grant. In order to receive federal aid, an institution must meet certain standards, and one of them is to maintain accreditation under a regional or nationally approved accrediting agency. There are so many other reasons why you would want to choose an accredited school over a non-accredited one: the most obvious being quality of education. You can trust that if a school meets accreditation, it has been double and triple checked in all the important areas by an outside agency, and you can rest easy knowing you are paying for, at minimum, an official education that meets the standards set by such agency.


That being said, there are institutions out there that are unaccredited, either because they fail to meet the requirements of earning accreditation, or choose not to because they are not interested in conforming to such standards. When building your college list, it would be wise to check their websites for accreditation information, especially if your student is considering some unconventional schools.


I hope this information has been valuable, and you can enter the search process at least having a common understanding of these key differences. Stay tuned for my next blog on specific factors to look for when researching schools.


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