9 Types of Colleges and How to Pick the Best One for You

There are more types of colleges than there are flavors of ice cream. Which is to say, there are a lot. Here are some of the college options you’ll find. Plus a few things to consider in making your decision.

Consider What You Want to Study

For example, perhaps you’re interested in liberal arts but not yet sure about which major to pursue. In that case, search for colleges with well-rounded liberal arts programs. If you’re undecided about your academic focus, look for colleges that offer a wide range of majors and degrees. If you’re more interested in leaving college with a set of skills for a specific manual trade, consider vocational school.

Knowing what you want from school is the first step to choosing the school you want.

Consider Where You Want to Study?

Do you crave city life? Or cornfields as far as the eye can see? Maybe you want to go to school near a beach where it’s 70 degrees all year round? Or perhaps you’d prefer a northern or high-altitude campus where winter sports are always near? 

Don’t overlook the importance of these factors in choosing where to go to college. Look for locations that will give you the types of activities you enjoy and appealing options for the time when not in class.

And don’t forget to ask yourself how far you want to be from home.

While what you study should be the primary driver in choosing a school, don’t underestimate the importance of where you study. The right environment can keep you in the right frame of mind for success.

Consider a College’s Cost  

It would be nice if this weren’t a factor, but unfortunately, it usually is. In fact, cost is a significant factor for all but the richest among us. However, don’t simply discount a school because it’s expensive. Many schools and organizations offer financial aid packages and scholarships. Most Ivy League schools offer no-loan aid packages for students whose families make under $65,000/year.

However, if you don’t get into an Ivy League school, other options exist to keep costs down. Public (state) schools cost less than private schools. Many state schools have excellent reputations and strong alumni networks, too.

Two-year community colleges are also less costly. Once you have your 2-year degree, you might be able to transfer to a 4-year school where you can earn a bachelor’s degree. Online degrees are another possible option. Some college is better than none.

It’s worth mentioning here that the Alliance Scholarship Program can help you pay for college. Since 1996, the program has awarded millions of dollars to thousands of deserving students. Learn more here.

With these considerations in mind, you can start to compare the different types of colleges.

College Types

  1. Public Colleges and Universities: Public (or state) schools cost less than private schools because state and local governments subsidize them. Often public schools offer reduced tuition to in-state residents.
  2. Private schools: Though tuition and fees may be higher at private colleges, they sometimes have endowments and donations that allow them to offer generous financial aid packages.
  3. Community or Junior Colleges. Community and junior colleges offer 2-year programs which award certificates or associate degrees. Often these 2-year programs have open enrollment to anyone with a high school diploma. They’re Ideal for those who can’t afford, don’t want, or might not qualify for a four-year college. 
  4. Liberal arts colleges. Often private institutions, these colleges offer Bachelor of Arts degrees and require students to study a broad range of subjects and disciplines. Their goal is to give students a “well-rounded” education. They provide lots of individual attention to undergraduates.
  5. Universities. Universities tend to be larger (sometimes enormous) and offer more courses of study and degree options, including graduate programs. Most universities have smaller colleges under their umbrellas, including colleges of liberal arts, engineering, health sciences, and agriculture.
  6. For-profit. For-profit colleges offer a variety of degree programs usually aimed at a specific career. They tend to be more expensive than many colleges, so you may leave school with more debt. If you’re interested in a for-profit school, check the U.S. Department of Education database to ensure the school is accredited and that your credits would transfer to other institutions. 
  7. Vocational, technical, and career schools. Vocational and career schools aim to prepare you for a specific profession or career. They specialize in engineering, automotive services, health services, culinary arts, and other career-oriented disciplines. These schools are for students who are clear about which career path they want to follow. The same caveats for for-profit schools also apply to career schools; make sure you read the fine print and know what you are signing up for!
  8. Special focus. Some schools focus on specific subjects or demographics. These include fine arts schools and conservatories, HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities), single-sex colleges, and schools with religious affiliations.
  9. Online degrees. Many institutions now offer partial or full degrees that can be obtained entirely online. Best Colleges reports 43 percent of school administrators said their institutions would continue to offer remote and online courses into the future — a 10 percent increase from what administrators reported in 2021. For-profit colleges dominate the Google search results for online degrees, so be careful. Consider only accredited schools with good reputations. A general rule of thumb: if the online degree program is from a brick-and-mortar college/university with a long history (Pace University, Auburn University, and St. John’s University all have highly rated fully online programs), you are probably on the right track.

In short, no college offers a one-size-fits-all for anyone and everyone who seeks higher education. Knowing what you want out of college will help you find the school that’s the best fit.

This article is here to help you choose an institution that will give you the college education benefits you seek. Don’t forget to consider campus life, too. This article tells you what to look for when you visit colleges. And be sure to check out The Alliance College Guide. It explains what you need to know about choosing, preparing for, applying to, and paying for college. All in clear, no-nonsense language.

Additional Resources

College Search Step-by-Step – Big Future’s Guide to finding the best college for your unique situation

The Database of Postsecondary Institutions and Programs – A simple way to check if the institution you’re considering is accredited

US News & World Report Database of Accredited Online Colleges – Helps you choose an accredited program that’s right for you.

College Stats

2.8 million students attend primarily online college

5.8 million students took at least one class online

Source: Best Colleges Online Learning Statistics