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What Kind of College Is the Right One for You?

by and on November 15, 2016 5:00 AM

There are more than 3,500 accredited colleges and universities in the United States.  How do you differentiate among all these schools?

Colleges all have slick, glossy brochures and professionally developed websites to entice students to visit and possibly attend one of these institutions of higher learning. But, there are distinct categories of colleges which a prospective student should be aware. It is important to understand the mission, culture and characteristics of the different types of schoolsland- grant universities, private research universities, baccalaureate and master’s degree institutions, liberal arts colleges, specialized colleges and community colleges.

■ Land-grant universities

Penn State University is a land-grant university. Every other state has a similar institution. Land-grant universities, such as Purdue, the University of Wisconsin and Ohio State, were founded in the mid-1800s to educate “the sons and daughters of the working classes in agriculture and the mechanical arts.” As a result, today, these institutions have well-established Colleges of Engineering and Agriculture, along with strong liberal arts and science programs.  

As doctoral-granting institutions, land-grant universities offer students a variety of majors, lots of school spirit with Division I sports teams, extensive libraries, large lecture classes and a wide range of faculty who are experts in particular fields of research. Students who attend these large state universities need to be self-motivated and assertive in order to navigate the bureaucracy of universities ranging in size from 12,000 students at the University of Vermont, to 30,000 students at Virginia Tech, to 50,000 at Michigan State.

In addition to their land grant university, many states often support other public research universities such as the University of Virginia, the University of Michigan and Indiana University.

■ Private research universities

These schools make up the approximately 260 doctoral-granting research universities in the United States. These universities have well-known graduate and professional schools in addition to offering undergraduate majors.

For example, Tufts University has a dental school, a veterinary science school and a medical school. Duke University, the University of Rochester, The University of Chicago, Johns Hopkins University, Yale University, Emory University and Vanderbilt University offer undergraduates an array of majors as well as the possibility for research opportunities.

These private universities are selective and interested in students who are intellectually curious and seek an academic challenge. Many are located in cities where students can participate in both on- and off-campus cultural events.

■ General baccalaureate colleges and master’s degree universities

Quinnipiac University, York College of Pennsylvania, West Chester University, Lock Haven University, Butler University, Jacksonville University and Widener University are institutions that fall into this category.

General baccalaureate colleges can be either public or private. All of them offer the liberal arts, but they usually award more than half of their degrees in career-oriented or applied majors such as mass communication, nursing, computer technology, business and education. Their focus is on undergraduate education and experiential learning, but they offer graduate degrees in some areas.

General baccalaureate colleges offer a comprehensive education with sports and co-curricular activities. They are usually not as selective as research universities and some liberal arts colleges.

■ Liberal arts colleges

These schools focus on undergraduate education and offer courses in the humanities, social sciences, liberal arts and sciences. They do not offer career-oriented or applied majors, although some may offer a business curriculum. Swarthmore, Smith and Bucknell also offer engineering.

The majority of liberal arts colleges are private and range in size from 1,200 to 3,000 students. Students who like small class discussions, who want to be involved a lots of activities, who want to play Division III sports and who are looking for a strong sense of community may thrive at a liberal arts college such as Kenyon, Drew, Dartmouth, Colgate, Union, Amherst, Allegheny, Lycoming or Dickinson.

■ Specialized private colleges

For students who are highly focused and sure about their career goals, there are highly specialized schools in art, business, engineering and music.

A violin player may want to just concentrate on his or her music and attend a music conservatory such as the Berklee College of Music or The Julliard School. The aspiring executive or entrepreneur may want to choose Babson College, Bryant or Bentley where the primary focus is on business. Engineers may want to attend the Colorado School of Mines or Worcester Polytechnic Institute, and the visual arts major may want to earn a fine arts degree at the Rhode Island School of Design or the Savannah School of Art and Design.

Specialized schools train students for a profession and have few general education requirements.

■ Community colleges

Founded during the 1960s, community colleges were designed to be non-residential and offer open admissions.

These public institutions offer two-year associate degree programs in applied areas such as hotel and restaurant management, graphic design, criminal justice, accounting or dental hygiene. In addition, for the student who is undecided about a major, or who wants to fulfill general education requirements before transferring on to a four-year college, community colleges are an economical place to begin a college career. 

We are fortunate in this country to have many choices for higher education. In order to make an informed decision about what college to attend and to find the right “fit” in a college, the basic starting point is deciding on the type of accredited college or university where you will learn, thrive and develop your skills and talents.

Heather Ricker-Gilbert is an independent college admissions counselor and welcomes questions at [email protected] or 


This story was produced by the staff at the Centre County Gazette. It was re-published with permission. The Centre County Gazette is a weekly publication, available at many locations around Centre County every Thursday morning.

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