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Meet Elizabeth Felts
at Harvard College
(2010-2014)

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Types of Universities

One of the hallmarks of the US higher education system is the diversity of universities.  Read on for more information about the following types of universities:

Private v Public (State-funded)

Public universities are state-funded institutions and are usually large in size. Foreign students pay out-of-state tuition, which is often higher than that paid by in-state residents. However, tuition fees at public universities are generally less expense than private universities.

Private universities are supported by tuition fees and private donations. They typically have a smaller student body, close-knit campus community and are more expensive to attend. However, private universities often have better campus facilities on offer (you get what you pay for!) and more funding set aside for international students, especially need-based scholarships.

Four-Year vs Two-Year (Junior or Community College)

Four-year universities offer Bachelor of Arts (BA) or Bachelor of Science (BSc) degrees, which are usually four years in length.  Bachelor’s degrees in the US follow the liberal arts philosophy described below and generally include core required courses, a major and subject electives.

Community or Junior Colleges (also known as two-year colleges) offer Associate of Arts (AA), Associate of Science (AS) or Associate of Applied Science (AAS) degrees. Some associate's degrees focus on vocational or technical education to prepare students for the workforce. Others prepare students to pursue a bachelor's degree by transferring to a four-year university in a 2+2 arrangement. Community colleges are often a low-cost option and have less competitive admission requirements than a four year university. See our page on bachelor's degrees for more information. Additionally, to find out more information regarding the benefits of a community or junior college, we would suggest you have a look at this webinar

Ivy League

Ivy League: Many students are surprised to find that the Ivy League is actually a sports conference of eight private colleges in the Northeast.  With many founded in colonial times, the Ivy League includes some of the oldest higher education institutions in the US, which are often perceived to be some of the most prestigious and competitive for admissions (average acceptance rates are around 10%).  Ivy League universities include Brown University, Columbia University, Cornell University, Dartmouth College, Harvard University, Princeton University, University of Pennsylvania, and Yale University.

Don't get confused; Ivy League is not necessarily the same as Russell Group.  Many brand name or prestigious universities you may have heard of are not members, such as Berkeley, Stanford, The University of Chicago or MIT. They either aren't old enough or weren't close enough to play football against!  See our Factors to Consider page for information and guidance on selecting a well-rounded list of universities to apply to.

Public Ivy is a term coined in the 1980s to describe a group of over 30 state-funded or public universities in the US.  This is not an official classification of universities; rather these universities have earned a reputation in the minds of many Americans as offering just as prestigious and academically rigorous an education as the Ivies and brand name private universities, but at a lower cost.  The original eight Public Ivies include College of William & Mary, Miami University, University of California (campuses as of 1985), University of Michigan, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, University of Texas at Austin, University of Vermont, and University of Virginia.

Other Types of Universities

The liberal arts philosophy promotes a well-rounded academic education that develops the student's verbal, written and reasoning skills. Students begin their degree study by taking classes in a wide variety of courses in the arts, humanities, languages and the social and physical sciences before specialising (majoring) in a particular field. Most US degrees follow this philosophy, but liberal arts colleges are small institutions centred on the undergraduate study of liberal arts/sciences. The primary focus for faculty is on undergraduate teaching rather than research, with a small student population and high student to faculty ratio. View US News & World Report rankings of liberal arts colleges

Specialist institutions are universities and institutes that specialise in providing degrees in a certain field. Common examples are MIT and CalTech, which focus on scientific and technological research; Juilliard, which is a centre for performing arts; Berklee, specialising in music; and SCAD and RISDI, which focus in visual and applied arts.

Land-grant universities are large, publicly-funded universities that are well-known for their programmes.

The Association of American Universities (AAU) is a membership organisation, comprising 62 leading research universities in the US and Canada.  Universities may be invited for membership based on the quality of their academic research and scholarship, as well as “general recognition that a university is outstanding by reason of the excellence of its research and education programs”. The listed universities are somewhat akin to Russell Group universities in the UK.

Women’s institutions - If you are interested in attending a women's college, download our handout on Women's Colleges in the US.

Distance education allows both students and professionals to earn a degree or certificate without being physically present at the institution. Qualification offerings include high-school diplomas, undergraduate and postgraduate degrees and certificate programmes. Some programmes have a set deadline for completion, while others allow students to work at their own pace within certain guidelines.

US universities abroad are US universities with overseas campuses and other foreign institutions and universities that offer US-style degrees.