There are over 4000 colleges and universities in the United States. To help you begin to narrow
-down your search, here are the basics about some common types of four-year, bachelor degree-granting institutions.
Liberal arts colleges are small with close-knit communities. Typically, they have fewer than 3000 undergraduate students, and very few graduate students. Class sizes are small, most of the classes are taught by professors, and you will be expected to participate in the classroom. Academically, you will be encouraged (if not required!) to explore a wide range of academic fields before focusing on your major. Because there are so few graduate students, most of the research and internship opportunities will be available to undergraduates. Living in the dormitories is encouraged, and students are heavily engaged in campus life.
Private research universities are larger than liberal arts colleges, and may have thousands of graduate students, but rarely have more than 15,000 undergraduate students. These universities frequently have more than one college or school. As an undergraduate applicant, many, but not all, private research universities require that you indicate which school you are applying to (College of Engineering, School of Education, College of Liberal Arts). Applying to a specific school within the university allows you to be more focused in your academic field from the beginning. Professors are dedicated to research in their fields, but also committed to undergraduate teaching. There will be at least some small classes for undergraduates, but your class sizes may simply be larger here, relative to classes at a liberal arts college. As an undergraduate, you may also have to compete for some resources with graduate students, but the facilities and opportunities will be of very high quality. Campus life at these universities is vibrant and active, but many students may live off-campus.
Public research universities range in size, but may have between 15,000 and 50,000 undergraduate students, in addition to thousands of graduate students. Most likely, there will be several colleges or schools at the university, and you will have to indicate your choice on your application. Class sizes are probably going to be larger, and you can expect to have a lot of lecture courses. Professors are primarily focused on research, and working with graduate students, but many professors teach undergraduate courses, as well. Laboratory and research facilities will be strong, but you may have to compete for access. These schools are often located in vibrant “college towns,” where a significant percentage of the population is affiliated with the university. You also have the excitement of big-time athletics. With huge student populations, there is no shortage of things to do, but you may have to be proactive to find and access what you want.
As you continue in your college search, you can use this guide to help determine what type of schools you want to consider, and where you think you could be the most successful academically, personally, and socially. We encourage students to take a look at all three types of schools, just to be sure that your instinct (if you have one off the bat) is indeed pointing you in the right direction.