This post is also available in:
There are several types of colleges and degree programs to choose from, and it’s important to know the potential benefits and detriments of each.
College vs. University
The terms college and university are generally used interchangeably to describe institutions with at least four years of higher education. However, a college is often thought of as a four-year educational institution that only offers bachelor’s degrees, whereas a university generally offers bachelors, masters, and Ph.D degrees. There are over 2,500 four-year colleges and universities in the United States.
Community College vs. Junior College
Both community and junior colleges are the same type of two-year higher education institutions offering associate degrees. “Junior” college was the term commonly used through the 1970s, but the term “community” college is more common today. City colleges and military junior colleges also fall into this category. There are over 1,500 two-year colleges in the United States. Typically, two-year colleges have:
Liberal Arts College
An undergraduate institution that is usually smaller in size (i.e.<5,000 students) with student-to-professor ratios of 10-20 students per professor. Most liberal arts colleges are private colleges (see Public vs. Private Colleges below). A liberal arts college offers traditional teaching in a wide variety of the humanities and sciences, rather than a specific vocational, technical or professional major. Liberal arts colleges award bachelor degrees following a four-year course of study, and very few offer post-graduate programs for masters or Ph.D degrees.
Public vs. Private Colleges
Public colleges and universities are largely supported by state funds and are often less expensive to attend if the student lives in the same state. Private institutions are supported by tuition and donations from alumni and friends of the college (i.e., endowments). Usually, the tuition for private colleges is more expensive than public colleges, but private colleges may offer more scholarships.
Associate vs. Bachelor Degree
An associate degree is an undergraduate degree awarded upon completion of a course of study generally lasting two years. Associate degrees are usually obtained at community colleges, junior colleges and technical colleges but may also be earned at a four-year college. Examples of careers that require an associate degree include lab technician, teacher in early-childhood programs, computer technician, draftsman, radiation therapist, paralegal and machinist. Bachelor degrees are obtained at four-year colleges and universities and are earned for an undergraduate course of study that generally requires three to five years of study (depending on institution and field of study).
Graduate vs. Professional Degree
A graduate degree is a Master or PhD level of study. The Master degree may be an 18-24 month course offering specific and detailed focus on the subject. A PhD, or doctoral degree, offers research-based expertise on a micro-subject and may involve an additional 3-5 years beyond the Master degree. A professional degree refers to specific intensified study such as medical, dental, veterinary, or law professions. Many professions prefer a graduate or professional degree in the areas of health sciences, engineering, business and other careers.
Full-time vs. Part-time Enrollment
Students who commit to at least 12 hours (typically four classes) of weekly classroom attendance are considered full-time students; those who take less than 12 hours/week (e.g. 1-3 classes) are considered part-time students. Each college has its own specific definition of full-time and part-time status. Many students attend college part-time while working in a job to support themselves.
For-Profit College Information
There is not just one college that is perfect for you–there are many colleges that can offer exactly what you want. The trick is to think about what you want out of the college experience and then look for schools that fit your needs and goals. The more time you can spend self-assessing and talking with others who know you (family, teachers and friends) the more likely you will be to select colleges that fit you well and provide a happy, motivating and meaningful experience. The most important factor in choosing a college is FIT.
In thinking about the questions above, you are starting to figure out what you want your college experience to be. The more you are able to know yourself–your strengths, your weaknesses, your interests, your hobbies, and your goals–the better off you will be in finding a good fit for college.
There are many factors to consider, and they will vary greatly from individual to individual. For some, academics are the most important, while others may focus on sports programs, location or extracurricular opportunities. Here are some specific things to consider:
What Should I Look for in a College?
You should research colleges that offer courses, majors, and programs in your areas of interest and that excel in those areas. Compare programs and class offerings, professor credentials and achievements, department support and enthusiasm, websites, research grants and programs, and any publicity or reports about that department. Again, using a ratings form to compare differences will help you narrow your list. Note that it is important to check policies on changing majors and transferring from one department to another within a university; often majors are capped or have very competitive admissions processes, so a change of major is not always possible.
How easy or difficult will it be to be admitted?
Many four-year colleges have a very high acceptance rate and admit 75% or more of their applicants. For these campuses, the application process is usually fairly straight-forward, including filling out an application, sending test scores and transcripts. Many do not require letters of recommendation. Some four-year colleges have guaranteed admission for certain combinations of grades and test scores, while others do not require ACT or SAT scores at all.
However, many 4-year colleges have become very competitive and the sheer number of students applying means that each student needs to invest more time and energy into using each part of the application to help the admission committee have a fuller picture of the student’s academics, activities, passions, goals, and interest in the campus. To determine how competitive the admissions processes will be, you will need to look at the grade point averages and SAT/ACT scores, as well as the percentage of students admitted. In the extreme, this percentage can be as low as 5-6%. These figures can usually be found on the colleges’ websites or on sites like College Navigator.
What is the cost?
College costs can range from $2,000 per year (at 2-year college with transferable credits) to $75,000+ per year at the most expensive private college campuses. Ask the following questions in a discussion at home: How much can your family contribute each year to your education costs? How much can you contribute from jobs, savings or gifts? Are you eligible for financial aid? Are you or your family willing to consider loans to help pay for college? Are you willing to set aside the time to search and apply for scholarships? Keep in mind the total cost-of-attendance listed is not necessarily the actual cost for each student. For more information consult the Pay for College section of this website.
What is the campus like?
Where is the campus located? What is important to you about the location of your college? What is the climate? What is the setting: rural, suburban, urban or college town? Consider the cost of travel, proximity to airports, campus safety, and availability of local transportation and cultural events. You should visit campuses whenever possible and take advantage of virtual tours on the college website and other sites that include virtual tours.
What is the enrollment size of the campus/program?
What campus environment is best for the way you learn? Sizes range from 24 to 70,000+ students! Small campuses can be more cohesive and personal and students may live on campus all four years. They usually have smaller class sizes and easier access to professors. Large campuses can have more majors and diversity, and are often less expensive. They may have more research opportunities and activities/athletic programs due to the larger size. College Honors Programs can provide small learning communities on large campuses.
What other features and activities are important/vital to you personally?
Clubs, sports, fine arts, jobs, types of dorms, religious affiliations, study-abroad programs, dietary requirements, facilities for special needs, local transportation, sororities and fraternities, foreign language immersion programs, internships and job placement programs are just some features to consider.
There are many resources available to help you find answers to these questions and build your list, including websites like Collegeboard’s Big Future, reference books in the College/Career Center, college rep visits, college fairs, opportunities to visit campuses, and advice from counselors, family and friends.
Florida Post-Secondary Options
You’ve researched your list of potential colleges and now it’s time to evaluate these colleges with the critical eye of determining your chance of acceptance. By sorting each college into one of three categories —Foundation, Target, Wildcard — you will have decided how to place your effort, time and money. In the spring of your senior year you will have several choices for your future in college.
This is a college that will most likely accept you and that you can afford. (Your test scores and GPA are in the upper 25 % of admitted students, i.e., your scores are in the 75% range or above.)
A college where you have a good chance for acceptance and some merit aid. (Your test scores and GPA fall comfortably within or exceed the top 50% of admitted students.)
A college where admission and merit aid are a stretch for you. (Your test scores and GPA fall at the lower end 50% of admitted students or lower 25%.) This category also applies to the most selective colleges with admittance rates of 20% and less.
How do I decide which category a school fits into?
You can compare your academic compatibility (GPA, test scores and coursework rigor) with the most recent admitted student profile found on a college’s website. You will also need to look at the acceptance rate for that school. If the acceptance rate for a college is less than 20%, put that school in the wildcard category.
You can determine whether or not you can attend the college without substantial financial aid. If you will need substantial financial aid to attend the school if admitted, put that school in the wildcard category.
Net Price Calculator
Due to financial aid, most college students do not pay the sticker price listed on college websites. To figure out what you and your family are likely to pay if you attend a particular institution, use the Net Price Calculator tool. Enter your family’s financial information and any other information that informs a college’s decision on providing aid and the calculation reports to what your estimated cost of attendance will be. While you will not receive your official financial aid offer until after you are accepted to a college or university, this tool can give you an idea of what to expect to pay. Every school is required by federal law to provide this opportunity – go to a university or college’s financial aid page to find this calculator. You can also search for “Net Price Calculator” in the institution’s search bar.
Note: Be aware that the admissions process is more than grades and test scores. Most schools evaluate applicants holistically and take into consideration other aspects such as essays, extracurricular activities, recommendation letters and awards. However, exceptional or extraordinary non-academic credentials such as a special talent or ability, legacy connection and donations may increase your chances.
Quality is better than quantity! Reduce or expand your college list to a manageable combination of foundation, target, and wildcard schools. The number of colleges on your final application list should be manageable enough so that you are able to submit a well-considered application to each college that accurately reflects your intentions.
Revisit your list if you are applying to more than eight to ten schools or less than two schools. Ideally, the final college list should be composed of:
The significant common factor for all the schools on your list should be your conviction that you would be happy and able to attend if you are accepted. Budget your time and money well and relinquish the urge to apply to more colleges than is necessary. Your primary goal should be to have viable options when final college responses are received by April 1. Decisions are due to the university you select by May 1 and indicated by providing a deposit to the institution.