With over 5,000 colleges and universities in the U.S, it can be very nerve-wracking to determine which institution is the right one for you.
In this guide, I will walk you through the different types of colleges (i.e. liberal arts colleges, research colleges, special interest colleges, vocational schools, community colleges) and offer some advice on how to make your decision. For more guidance on the college application process, sign up for a monthly plan to work with an admissions coach 1-on-1.
What types of colleges are out there, and who are they for?
As I go through this list, keep in mind that there might be types of schools not mentioned here. There are also plenty of schools that fit into multiple categories. This article is not meant to be entirely comprehensive — instead, it should spark further research on your part.
Liberal Arts Colleges
One of the defining factors of a liberal arts college is its emphasis on breadth rather than depth of exploration. Essentially, students are exposed to a wide range of subjects and guided through an interdisciplinary analysis of these topics.
For example, at Williams College, students may major in Geosciences or Political Economy; however, they must also take courses in arts and humanities, social sciences, and science and mathematics, prompting that cross-disciplinary exploration.
Liberal arts colleges also tend to have a smaller student population and a more intimate class setting. Amherst College, for example, has around 1,800 undergraduate students total with a student-to-faculty ratio of 7:1. While many research colleges offer liberal arts majors, liberal arts colleges truly specialize in fostering this creative and versatile thinking.
If you want to gain a multidimensional perspective on your areas of interest, a liberal arts college may be the place for you. Additionally, choosing a liberal arts school does not mean you won’t take on a professional degree. The difference between research institutions and liberal arts colleges largely stems from their teaching methodologies. Liberal arts schools do not focus on the technical skills required for professional degrees. Instead, they emphasize holistic and interdisciplinary learning.
Lastly, it’s important to note that many classes at liberal arts colleges are grounded in classroom discussion and writing. If you want a classroom environment that prioritizes interaction between peers and faculty, you may thrive at a liberal arts college.
While obvious, it is important to highlight that research colleges truly specialize in research. Many of these institutions receive millions of dollars each year to fuel research efforts; in return, they publish thousands of articles that further all areas of study. Hence, you will find that a lot of these colleges focus on cultivating undergraduate research efforts.
Harvard College, for example, has initiatives like the Harvard College Research Program and Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship Program that help connect students to research opportunities. Research colleges tend to also have post-undergraduate educational programs that can help students network with professionals in their fields. For instance, Vanderbilt University has over 50 graduate programs.
Research colleges primarily serve students who would like to go more in-depth in a particular field of study. While these institutions do not require students to do research, you will often find the research process integrated into many classes.
Special Interest Colleges
Some institutions are known for their student-body composition or their religious affiliation—we will classify those colleges as “special interest” colleges.
There are a number of women's colleges, such as Barnard College, Smith College, and Bryn Mawr College. There are also a few men’s colleges, such as Morehouse College and Wabash College.
Some students may also consider historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) such as Howard University and Spelman College. These schools are grounded in educating individuals identifying as Black, but you do not have to identify as Black to attend.
Institutions like the University of Norte Dame and Brigham Young University have religious afflictions; while they may encourage religious practice, you do not need to have a shared religious identity to attend.
Special interest colleges can be a good fit for students who would like to have a common identity with the majority of the student body.
For those who would like to go into fields that do not require a four-year degree (i.e. medical/dental assisting and cosmetology), vocational schools can help students receive the job training they need to start practicing in two years or less. There are often dozens of vocational and trade schools to choose from in most big cities.
Community college is an affordable way to gain a higher-level education within two years. Students have the opportunity to specialize in a variety of topics in a manner that suits their lifestyle. This can be particularly valuable for students who work day jobs or who need to support their families.
If interested, students can transfer their credits to a four-year institution. This offers students the opportunity to earn a bachelor’s degree at a lower cost (as students would only have to pay tuition to the four-year college for two years).
How do you choose which type of college you want to go to?
When making a decision on which type of college is best for you, there are many factors to consider. These include potential career path, finances, and fit.
Potential Career Path
As a high school student, you may not know what exactly you want to do as an adult (which is totally fine). However, there are some careers that require or highly recommend a bachelor’s degree.
For example, if you aim to become a physician or a lawyer, you will need a four-year degree. If you want to be an engineer, it would be important to keep in mind that not all liberal arts colleges offer a Bachelor’s in Engineering. Spending some time thinking about your potential career path will help you make a well-informed decision.
You probably do not need me to tell you that higher education is expensive. Your financial situation may play a significant role in your decision. As I previously mentioned, attending a vocational/trade school would allow you to go into the workforce sooner than if you attend, say, a liberal arts college. And getting an associate’s degree and transferring your credits to a four-year institution is cheaper. However, a lot of four-year institutions offer scholarships and grants that can bring your total cost of attendance down.
Ultimately, it is important for you to choose the college type that will be the right fit for you. If you are interested in interdisciplinary studies and smaller class sizes, you may want to consider attending a liberal arts college. If you are eager to engage in research and network with a larger class of students and professionals, a research institution may be right for you.
It is extremely important to keep in mind that this is not an either/or situation. For example, many liberal arts colleges offer research opportunities (i.e. Williams College) and many research colleges have liberal arts curriculums (i.e. Columbia University).
How might applying to these different college types vary?
Generally, liberal arts colleges, research colleges, and special interest colleges are more selective than vocational schools and community colleges.
You may also find that for liberal arts colleges, you will have to respond to more creative supplemental essay prompts. For research colleges, you may have to discuss your current interests and how you hope to grow them. Special interest colleges often have prompts that ask you to demonstrate your passion and commitment to their special interest.
Regardless, the application processes for liberal arts colleges, research colleges, and special interest colleges tend to be more intense than for vocational schools and community colleges.
After reading this blog post, I hope you were able to gain a starting point for your further exploration. Our advisors are also here to help you figure out which college type is best for you and to guide you as you create a school list. Whichever college type you end up choosing, you can rest assured that you will gain a solid education that can help launch your future career.
This guide on selecting the right college was written by Rashmi Bharadwaj, Vanderbilt ‘21. If you want to get help with your college applications from Rashmi or other CollegeAdvisor.com Admissions Experts, register with CollegeAdvisor.com today.