Higher education in the United States

Higher education in the United States is an optional final stage of formal learning following secondary education. Higher education, also referred to as post-secondary education, third stage, third level, or tertiary education occurs most commonly at one of the 4,726 Title IV degree-granting institutions, either colleges or universities in the country. These may be public universities, private universities, liberal arts colleges, community colleges, or for-profit colleges. High visibility issues include greater use of the Internet, such as massive open online courses, competency-based education, cutbacks in state spending, rapidly rising tuition and increasing student loans.

According to the National Student Clearinghouse, US college enrollment has declined for five consecutive years and is projected to continue declining for the next two decades.

Strong research and funding have helped make American colleges and universities among the world’s most prestigious, making them particularly attractive to international students, professors and researchers in the pursuit of academic excellence.

Unlike Tertiary education system of UK (and in addition Australia), American education is unique in the world to place strong emphasis on Liberal Arts education in its higher education curriculum.


Types of colleges and universities

Colleges and universities in the U.S. vary in terms of goals: some may emphasize a vocational, business, engineering, or technical curriculum (like polytechnic universities and land-grant universities) while others may emphasize a liberal arts curriculum. Many combine some or all of the above, being a comprehensive university. In the US, the term “college” refers to either one of three types of education institutions: stand-alone higher level education institutions that are not components of a university, including
1) community colleges,
2) liberal arts colleges, or
3) a college within a university, mostly the undergraduate institution of a university.

Unlike colleges versus universities in other portions of the world, a stand-alone college is truly stand-alone and is not part of a university, and is also not affiliated with an affiliating university.

Almost all colleges and universities are coeducational. During a dramatic transition in the 1970s, all but a handful of men’s colleges started accepting women. Over 80 percent of the women’s colleges of the 1960s have closed or merged, leaving fewer than 50 in operation. Over 100 historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) operate, both
private (such as Morehouse College) and public (such as Florida A&M).

Higher education has led to the creation of accreditation organizations, independent of the government, to vouch for the quality of competing degrees. The accreditation agencies rate universities and colleges on criteria such as academic quality, the quality of their libraries, the publishing records of their faculty, the degrees which their faculty hold, and their financial solvency. Accrediting agencies have been criticized for possible conflicts of interest that lead to favorable results. Non-accredited institutions exist, such as Bible colleges, but the students are not eligible for federal loans.


Community colleges

Community colleges are often, though, not always two-year colleges. They have open admissions, with generally lower tuition than other state or private schools. Graduates receive the associate’s degree such as an Associate of Arts (A.A.) upon graduating. Many students earn an associate degree at a two-year institution, before transferring to a four-year institution to study another two years to earn a bachelor’s degree.[10]

Four-year colleges usually have a larger number of students, offer a greater range of studies, and provide the bachelor’s degree, mostly the Bachelor of Arts (B.A.) or Bachelor of Science (B.S.). They are either primarily undergraduate institutions (i.e. Liberal Arts Colleges) or the undergraduate institution of a university (such as Harvard College and Yale College).


Some states, such as Washington, now offer schools simply known as “colleges”, many of which used to be “community colleges”. The elevation in status comes from a cooperation between the community college and local universities. There are two primary distinctions between colleges and community colleges that arise from this arrangement.

The first being an increased standardization of curricula and adherence to some university guidelines, thereby improving the chances that community college credits are transferred to in-state universities. The aim is to maximize the number of transferred credits, as this has traditionally been a frequent issue that forces students to take redundant coursework, pay more tuition unnecessarily, as well as giving them unfair competitive advantage at university.

The second primary difference is that colleges, in cooperation with university, can offer courses that go beyond the 2-year-level of education that is typical of community colleges. Some colleges go so far as to offer particular, specialized 4-year bachelor’s degrees, on behalf of the university.


Liberal arts colleges

Four-year institutions in the U.S. emphasizing the liberal arts are liberal arts colleges, entirely undergraduate institutions and stand-alone. They traditionally emphasize interactive instruction, although student research projects are of growing importance. They are known for being residential and for having smaller enrollment, class size, and higher teacher-student ratios than universities. These colleges encourage a high level of teacher-student interaction, at the center of which are classes taught by full-time faculty, rather than graduate student teaching assistants (TAs), who often teach classes at some Research I universities and other universities. Most are private,[according to whom?] although there are public liberal arts colleges. Some offer experimental curricula, such as Hampshire College, Beloit College, Bard College at Simon’s Rock, Pitzer College, Sarah Lawrence College, Grinnell College, Bennington College, New College of Florida, and Reed College.

Technical Schools

Technical schools are four-year institutions that emphasize a particular trade or set of technical skills, primarily for the sake of employability.



Universities are research-oriented educational institutions which provide both undergraduate and graduate programs. For historical reasons, some universities such as Boston College, Dartmouth College, and The College of William & Mary and College of Charleston have retained the term “college” instead of “university” as their name. Graduate programs grant a variety of master’s degrees (like the Master of Arts (M.A.), Master of Science (M.S.), Master of Business Administration (M.B.A.) or Master of Fine Arts (M.F.A.)) in addition to doctorates such as the Ph.D.

The Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education distinguishes among institutions on the basis of the prevalence of degrees they grant and considers the granting of master’s degrees necessary, though not sufficient, for an institution to be classified as a university.

Some universities have professional schools. Examples include journalism school, business school, medical schools which award either the M.D. or D.O., law schools (J.D.), veterinary schools (D.V.M.), pharmacy schools (Pharm.D.), and dental schools. A common practice is to refer to different units within universities as colleges or schools, what is referred
to outside the U.S. as faculties.

Some colleges may be divided into departments, including an anthropology department within a college of liberal arts and sciences, within a larger university. Few universities adopt the term “college” as names of academic organizations. For example, Purdue University is composed of multiple colleges—among others, the College of Agriculture and the College of Engineering. Of
these Purdue breaks the College of Agriculture down into departments, such as the Department of Agronomy or the Department of Entomology, whereas Purdue breaks down the College of Engineering into schools, such as the School of Electrical Engineering, which enrolls more students than some of its colleges do. As is common in this scheme, Purdue categorizes both its undergraduate students (and faculty and programs) and its post-graduate students (and faculty and programs) via this scheme of decomposition, being a topical decomposition that focuses on an academic sector of directly related academic disciplines.

The American university system is largely decentralized. Public universities are administered by the individual states and territories, usually as part of a state university system. Except for the United States service academies and staff colleges, the federal government does not directly regulate universities. However it can offer federal grants and any institution that receives federal
funds must certify that it has adopted and implemented a drug prevention program that meets federal regulations.

Each state supports at least one state university and several support many more. California, for example, has three public higher education systems: the 10-campus University of California, the 23-campus California State University, and the 112-campus California Community Colleges System. Public universities often have a large student body, with introductory classes numbering in the hundreds, and some undergraduate classes taught by graduate students. Tribal colleges operated on Indian reservations by some federally recognized tribes are also public institutions.

Many private universities also exist. Among these, some are secular while others are involved in religious education. Some are non-denominational and some are affiliated with a certain sect or church, such as Roman Catholicism (with different institutions often sponsored by particular religious institutes such as the Jesuits) or religions such as Lutheranism or Mormonism. Seminaries are private institutions for those preparing to become members of the clergy. Most private schools (like all public schools) are non-profit, although some are for-profit.