Colleges 101: Terms & Definitions

The college admissions process can often be confusing, with dates and terms that seem mysterious. Here are some basic terms to keep in mind as you navigate the process:

College and University: What’s the Difference?

  • College: generally focused on undergraduate programs only (does not offer advanced degrees such as Master’s, Ph.D., etc.); frequently smaller than a university

  • University: focused on both undergraduate and graduate programs, offering advanced degrees (Master’s, Ph.D.) in addition to undergrad degrees; may also house professional schools such as law and medical schools

what are the different types of schools ?

  • Public Universities. In the U.S., most public institutions are state universities founded and operated by state governments. Every state has at least one public university.

  • Liberal Arts Colleges. A liberal arts college is a college or university that either focuses on a general knowledge curriculum, or is in contrast to professional, vocational, or technical studies. While most liberal arts colleges are private, there are some public liberal arts colleges as well.

  • Private Universities. In the U.S., many universities and colleges are private, operated as educational and research nonprofit organizations. The term “university” is primarily used to designate graduate education and research institutions.

What Degree Will You Get?

  • Bachelor of Arts (BA) Degree: 4-year degree; usually less specialized than a BS degree; normally awarded in such majors as the languages, literature, other humanities, and history

  • Bachelor of Science (BS) Degree: 4-year degree; often involves technical fields; normally awarded in such majors as the physical and biological sciences, engineering, and agriculture

  • Associate’s Degree: 2-year degree awarded for completing the equivalent of the first two years of a degree at a 4-year college; degrees include Associate of Arts, Associate of Sciences and Associate of Applied Sciences (for completing a vocational or technical program)

School Size

  • Small: fewer than 5,000 students, on average; small schools tend to be private liberal-arts schools but there are some smaller public colleges as well

  • Mid-Sized: between 5,000-15,000 students; many colleges (including a number of the Ivies) fit this category

  • Large: more than 15,000 students; the majority of colleges and universities fall into this category, which includes the smaller state universities and largest private schools

  • Huge: more than 30,000 students (ex: Penn State, UT, Texas A&M, Ohio State, U of Florida)