College Categories

To see what makes the schools on your list really tick, look past the wrought-iron gates and manicured quads to see how they operate. 

Have you found the school's accreditation status? Accreditation is the process colleges go through to demonstrate their academic quality and commitment to honest and ethical practices. Finding an accredited college or university will help you avoid fraud and false advertising. Watch out for any school that promises a degree in days or months. Some programs have been found to be "diploma mills," or fake colleges that sell meaningless credentials. For a list of accredited colleges and universities, visit the public databases from the US Department of Education and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation​ (CHEA). More information about accreditation and the dangers of diploma mills is available from CHEA.   

Your college decision is one of the biggest decisions you will make as an adult. Your undergraduate experience will help to shape your future and allow you to visualize a career path. First things first, do your research and compare your options carefully. If you have any questions or concerns, seek out the advice of your high school counseling office. When you visit a campus or a college fair, talk with college representatives. In addition to the admission criteria, find out about the school’s academic offerings, the campus life and the cost to attend.

A productive college search can be difficult at times, but there are ways to shrink your list more efficiently. One way is to identify which operational structure best fits your needs. Many colleges and universities seem to have similar features, but the way they are structured or managed can reveal a lot about their academic programs and social environment. When you start targeting individual colleges, you should know which general category that school falls under: Non-Profit (private or public) or For-Profit.





Private colleges and universities can vary greatly in their course offerings and campus life. The thing they have in common is that they all receive funding primarily from student tuition and endowments. These institutions function as non-profit organizations that usually follow the leadership of a board of trustees.

Private colleges and universities may receive some governmental support in the form of tax breaks and student loans, but operating mostly on private support allows them to develop their own institutional plan. Many of these colleges and universities are associated with religious and other types of community groups. Many have kept their traditional campus model, though the courses and student cultures have transformed drastically throughout the past few centuries. 

The list of private colleges includes the nation’s oldest institutions. Private institutions that date back to the 17th and 18th centuries include Harvard University (MA), Yale University (CT) and Princeton University (NJ). These particular, centuries-old institutions also tend to be highly selective. However, the range of selectivity varies greatly among private colleges and universities. According to the Department of Education, the private (66 percent) and public institutions (68 percent) reported similar mean selectivity rates in 2009.   

A reliance on private funds has also led to a higher average cost. For the 2010 to 2011 academic year, College Board estimated the cost of tuition, room and board at private colleges and universities to be an average of $29,492 compared to $8,274 at public colleges and universities. Don’t let this sharp contrast in cost prevent you from seeking admission. At these institutions, financial aid opportunities often reduce the total cost and loan burden. 


Public colleges and universities receive funding from tuition and endowments, but the larger part of their funding comes from state or local taxes. Most public postsecondary schools are state-run, which lowers the tuition for in-state students. Public colleges and universities can focus on a specific area of study, like research or liberal arts, but many, referred to as “regional comprehensive institutions,” offer many different fields of study, with an emphasis on professional programs. 

Public colleges and universities follow performance standards which are set by the state, as opposed to a private school’s board of trustees. Public schools are typically categorized as two-year, four-year, research, comprehensive, or community colleges. Like private institutions, the selectivity rates among public schools can vary greatly. Public schools include highly-selective schools like William and Mary (VA) and the University of California-Berkley (CA), as well as community colleges with open-access policies. 



While public and private colleges receive their funding in different forms, both types of institutions are still considered non-profit. Proprietary institutions are considered for-profit companies that operate under the demands of investors and stockholders. As of the 2009 to 2010 academic year, there were more non-profit institutions than for-profits, but over the last two decades, the number of degree-granting for-profits has increased rapidly. 

Proprietary institutions attract adult learners and part-time students in search of narrowly-focused professional training opportunities. These programs usually offer a non-traditional format; many for-profits also have classes solely available online. 

Proprietary institutions receive up to 90 percent of their revenue from federal student aid. This reliance on federal funding has inspired some for-profit recruiters to promote potentially unsafe borrowing practices. Beware of proprietary college representatives who encourage you to borrow past your predetermined threshold. An investigation by the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) revealed questionable and even fraudulent practices at 15 for-profit colleges in six states. In one scenario, an admission representative at a for-profit college told an undercover applicant to stop worrying about large student loan debt because the applicant would be able to dodge payments. In reality, unpaid student loan debt can damage the borrower’s credit and limit the availability of future loans. It is also extremely difficult to discharge student loans, even in bankruptcy. 

The GAO investigation also found numerous examples of high-pressure sales tactics at proprietary schools. While the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that 90 percent of barbers make less than $43,000 a year, one admission representative for a proprietary school inflated that salary to $150,000 to $250,000. For-profit admission representatives have also reportedly bombarded applicants with hundreds of phone call solicitations. At some for-profit colleges, agents have withheld access to financial aid information until applicants pay certain fees or enroll in a program. Federal regulations require colleges to provide potential and current students with this important financial aid information.

In the marketplace, buyers and sellers have a clearer understanding of business models and the motivations of for-profit companies. In the college admission environment, aggressive sales tactics can adversely affect the integrity of the admission process and mislead applicants. Avoid high pressure admission situations, and obtain access to all necessary information. 

Consider Your Options Carefully 

A close examination of the academic, social and financial factors will lead you to a best-fit college. When you have narrowed down your list of schools and are ready to begin the application process, first be sure to calculate the amount you could owe after graduation. During the 2007-08 academic year, the median debt load for a bachelor’s degree recipient was:
  • $17,040 at private schools 

  • $7,960 at public schools 

  • $31,190 at for-profit colleges 
​(College Board, Trends in Higher Education 2009)

Because a postsecondary degree is such a significant investment, do not overestimate the importance of patience during the college admission process. Take time to reflect on all of your options. Some institutions may offer quick admission to their school, but be sure you have examined enough options before accepting any immediate offer. 

The admission process at four-year non-profits typically requires an application, which may ask for standardized test scores, high school transcripts, essays, and other materials. You want to find the institution that will best match up with your qualifications and personality, so the application process is a great way to get to know a college and for a college to get to know you. Before you send any applications, make sure you have completed all the admission requirements. After all, a college only knows as much about you as the information you provide.


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