Ask a high schooler what college he or she wants to attend, and you’re likely to hear one of about fifty big name schools–typically either ultra-competitive or beloved for sports. However, the pool is far larger, approximately 5,300 in the United States alone, though that number includes even small technical and for-profit schools. How can a student choose from such a dizzying array of options? Geography plays a major role, particularly among students at public four-year colleges; nearly 70% of such students attend within two hours of their home.
Location aside, every institution of higher education possesses something unique to itself, some tradition or cultural distinction that instantly bonds students and alumni alike wherever they meet. On a broader level, however, colleges and universities can be sorted into classic categories, such as the archetypes NACAC describes:
Liberal arts colleges “focus on the education of undergraduate students. Classes are generally taught by professors who see teaching as their primary responsibility. Students who attend liberal arts colleges are exposed to a broad sampling of classes.”
–Learn more about attending a liberal arts college.
Universities “are generally larger and include a liberal arts college, as well as colleges focused on preparation for specific careers, like nursing or education… Research opportunities and other extracurricular options are readily available.”
–Learn more about attending a large public university.
Technical institutes and professional schools “enroll students who have made clear decisions about what they want to study and emphasize preparation for specific careers in music, fine arts, engineering, or technical sciences.”
Historically Black Colleges and Universities “originated at a time when African-American students were systematically denied access to most other colleges and universities. Students at HBCUs have a unique opportunity to experience an educational community in which they are a part of the majority.”
–Learn more about attending an HBCU.
Tribal colleges “focus on the needs and education of American-Indian students.”
Women’s colleges “offer confidence-building role models, greater opportunities to serve in a full range of student leadership positions, and a heightened awareness of career possibilities for women.”
–Learn more about attending a women’s college.
Religiously-affiliated colleges and universities “Although they are not limited in admission to members of that religious group, they often run in alignment with religious principles. To graduate, students may be required to take one or two religion classes (and sometimes more).”
–Learn more about attending a Jesuit university.
–Learn more about attending a Christian college.
Community or junior colleges generally offer the first two years of a liberal arts education in addition to specialized occupational preparation. An associate degree is awarded at the end of a two-year program of studies. Many students continue their education at a four-year institution.
–Learn more about attending a community college.
While the NACAC list also includes for-profit colleges, the fact that many of these schools’ practices can only be described as predatory precludes them from consideration for most students. However, a worthy addition to the list are military schools, which can offer world-class education, leadership training, and full tuition in exchange for a period of service commitment.
–Learn more about attending a military service academy.
These types hardly cover all the distinctions among institutions of higher education. Levels of academic rigor or competitiveness play major roles in school selection, as do specialized sports programs. Of course, you can also sort by the environment in which a college is located, such as urban, rural, or warm-weather. And don’t forget to look outside the United States entirely!
–Learn more about attending college in a big city.
–Learn more about attending university in Europe.
The more you understand the benefits and trade-offs of each category of school, the easier choosing a college becomes. By the time geography, environment, archetype, academic reputation, and price are considered, that unwieldy 5000+ pool of schools may be narrowed down to maybe only 50 contenders. How do you decide then? College visits, of course!