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The Different Types of Colleges

A college campus with wide grassy lawn

While every college and university is unique, they usually fit into several common categories. Understanding these categories helps you know what to expect from the school, your classes, and your professors. This knowledge gives you insight into how to succeed academically. But maybe most importantly, it allows you to choose the right college for your needs. 

This article covers several types of colleges you should get to know as you narrow down the colleges and universities you'll be applying for. And remember, you can discover colleges that fit your unique needs by creating a free account on Appily. 

In no particular order, here are the different types of colleges you should know about.

Community and junior colleges

These colleges offer the first two years of a liberal arts education and career or vocational training. Completing a community or junior college curriculum earns graduates an associate's degree.

Community colleges are generally less expensive than four-year colleges and universities, making them an attractive option for students looking to save on tuition costs. In addition, these schools usually offer smaller class sizes to provide more individualized attention and interactive learning. However, they typically have fewer extracurricular opportunities than four-year schools and do not offer on-campus housing.

Many community college students continue to a four-year institution after gaining their associate's degree. Some community colleges even have articulation agreements with four-year colleges and universities, making it easy for students to transfer credits and finish their education.

Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs)

Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) were established before 1964 to serve the African American community at a time when African Americans were largely excluded from other educational institutions. Now, these colleges celebrate African-American culture and empowerment and give black students a chance to experience an academic community where they are finally part of the majority. 

Garrick Gibson, the co-founder of HBCU Lifestyle, the go-to website for the Black college experience featuring the most trusted HBCU rankings, and alumni career resources, explains, "HBCUs have been giving students unique social, cultural, and academic experiences for a long time. They've played a critical role in developing African American professionals, including the top percent of black college graduates, teachers, lawyers, judges, and health care workers."

As you can imagine, HBCUs offer a range of academic programs, including undergraduate and graduate degrees, and are accredited by the same agencies as other colleges and universities. Many HBCUs focus on liberal arts education but also offer professional and technical programs.

Today, there are 107 HBCUs in the United States, including well-known schools like Howard University, Spelman College, and Morehouse College. HBCUs serve a diverse student body, but they remain committed to their original mission of serving the African American community and promoting diversity and inclusion.

Liberal arts colleges

Liberal arts colleges offer a range of academic programs in the arts, humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences. Liberal arts colleges typically have smaller class sizes and a more personal approach to education, allowing for more faculty interaction and a greater emphasis on individualized learning.

Liberal arts colleges may also greatly emphasize research, internships, experiential learning, and extracurricular activities such as clubs, organizations, and sports. These schools may be either public or private, ranging in size from small, residential colleges to large, research-oriented universities. In addition, some liberal arts colleges have a specific religious or ideological focus, while others are more secular.

Women's colleges

Women's colleges were founded in the 19th and early 20th centuries when women were largely excluded from mainstream educational institutions. As a result, these colleges offer women the opportunity to enjoy a learning community where they are in the majority. Additionally, these colleges have a much larger female faculty and administrators population.

Women's colleges offer a wide range of academic programs. Each year, they graduate with many science majors and students who continue their education with graduate school or professional studies.

These schools may also place a greater emphasis on leadership development, mentorship, and networking. They also tend to offer a range of extracurricular activities and resources to support their students' personal and professional growth.

As of 2021, there were 35 women's colleges in the United States, including schools like Wellesley College, Barnard College, and Bryn Mawr College. While women's colleges were initially founded to serve the needs of women, they now host a diverse student body while remaining committed to promoting diversity and inclusion.

Tribal colleges

Tribal colleges are located on or near Native American reservations and are controlled by Native American tribes. Like HBCUs or Women's colleges, tribal colleges focus on the needs and education of a group traditionally underrepresented in higher education. In this case, tribal colleges focus on educating and empowering Native American students while celebrating a specific tribe's unique culture and accomplishments.

Tribal colleges offer associate's and bachelor's degrees. Many also strongly focus on Native American studies, cultural programs, and technical and vocational education. They may also offer a range of extracurricular activities and resources to support their students' personal and professional growth.

There are 32 tribal colleges throughout the United States, including public and private institutions. 

Technical institutes and professional schools

Technical colleges, also known as vocational colleges or trade schools, offer specialized training in technical and vocational fields. They are an excellent choice for students who have chosen their career path since the curriculum at these colleges focuses solely on preparing students for these specific careers. The most common trades or professions supported by technical colleges include automotive repair, healthcare, cosmetology, and information technology. 

These colleges offer a range of programs, including certificate programs, associate's degrees, and professional certifications. They are typically shorter in duration than traditional college degree programs and are designed to provide students with the practical skills needed to enter the workforce as soon as possible.

Technical colleges may also offer co-op or internship programs to provide students with hands-on experience in their field of study. Many technical colleges also partner with local businesses and industries, giving students easier access to job placements or internships after graduation.


Universities offer a wide range of academic programs at the undergraduate and graduate levels, including bachelor's degrees, master's degrees, and doctoral degrees. Universities provide a greater range of academic choices than liberal arts colleges but often have large classes. It can be more challenging to get to know your professors at a university than at a liberal arts college, but this is not always the case.

Universities are divided into various colleges and departments, each responsible for a specific study area. For example, a university may have a College of Arts and Sciences, a College of Business, and a College of Engineering. 

Universities typically have a more formal and structured academic environment than colleges and emphasize research more. They also have abundant extracurricular activities, such as clubs, organizations, sports teams, and cultural centers. Finally, they usually offer on-campus student housing. 

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