US College Landscape


How many colleges are there?

The US Department of Education states that there are over 2,600 4-year degree granting institutions in the country.  When students attend college for 4 years they earn a Bachelors degree:  BA, BS, BFA.

The Fiske Guide, one of the best selling college guides, reviews over 300 colleges that they consider to be “the best and most interesting”.

What are the different types of US colleges?

The term “college” often applies to both universities and colleges in the US.

Universities have both undergraduate programs sometimes with separate colleges or schools, and graduate programs.  Research is an important focus of universities and an opportunity for students, but may keep professors from teaching introductory undergraduate classes.  Class size and who teaches the courses are factors to consider when selecting institutions.

Liberal Arts Colleges (LACs) are smaller than universities and have only undergraduate programs where professors teach the classes.  Class sizes tend to be smaller and more personal.  Programs of study may be more limited or lack depth of similar programs at universities.

Public colleges’ tuition/fees are generally lowest because they receive funds from State taxes for their operating costs. Most 4-year and 2-year public colleges (community colleges) charge higher tuition for nonresidents versus legal residents of the state in which the college is located.  These costs, even for nonresidents, may be less than private colleges.

Private colleges’ tuition/fees are typically higher than those for public colleges since they don’t receive public funding and need to charge more of their real costs to students. However, private colleges often have more financial aid resources but these vary a great deal by institution.  See the College Cost tab to learn more about types of financial aid.

For-Profit colleges typically focus on a trade or technical skill sets.  Tuition is established at a level that ensures operating costs are covered and a profit is attained.  Often For-Profits have on-line educational options that create greater access for students.  Currently there is a great deal of controversy surrounding these colleges in terms of costs, financial aid structure and degree qualifications, and therefore require careful evaluation if they are being considered as an option.

Community colleges are normally 2 years and students may earn an Associates degree.  Their entrance requirements are less stringent than most 4-year institutions.  Students may transfer their course credits to a 4-year institution, after their approval, with the objective of earning a Bachelors degree.

How do students apply?

Students are not restricted by the number of colleges to which they may apply.  Each college charges a fee when an application is submitted for review.

College choices by the students are based on a number of factors, including ease of gaining admissions, personal fit, and the cost of attendance.

There is no clearing house and students complete applications for admissions and financial aid directly to each institution.

Most college applications are submitted on-line through the Common Application website, but some colleges may have their own separate application.  Many have their own supplements beyond the Common Application, as well.

In addition to quantitative factors such as course transcript and test scores, the US college application process evaluates more qualitative factors such as:  character, extracurricular activities, leadership and motivation.

The evaluation process creates a fairly unpredictable process but there are steps that may be taken to assist students with presenting their best applications.