With thousands of colleges and universities in the U.S. alone, it can be overwhelming to decide where to apply. A great first step is to ask yourself what kind of experience you’re looking for. College is where you’ll form lifelong friendships, prepare for a career or further education, and discover the things you’re passionate about. You can start to narrow your search by looking at the broad categories of institutions available and asking yourself what’s important to you in your college experience.
Public Research Universities (e.g., University of Wisconsin, SUNY Binghamton, Penn State) range in size, but may have between 15,000 and 50,000 undergraduate students, in addition to thousands of graduate students. Tuition rates are typically lower for in-state residents. Most likely, there will be several colleges or schools at the university, and you will have to indicate your choice on your application (college of engineering, school of education, college of liberal arts, etc.). Class sizes are probably going to be larger, and you can expect to have a lot of lecture courses. Professors are focused on research as well as teaching, and you may have courses taught by graduate students. Laboratory and research facilities will be strong, but priority for accessing them will go to graduate students. These schools are often located in great college towns where a significant percentage of the population is affiliated with the university. You also have the excitement of big-time Division I athletics. With huge student populations, there is no shortage of things to do, but you may have to be pro-active to find what you want.
Private Research Universities (e.g., Tulane, NYU, Boston University, Cornell) can have thousands of graduate students, but rarely have more than 20,000 undergraduate students. Like their public counterparts, these universities frequently have more than one college or school, and you may have to indicate which school you are applying to. 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 you should expect some large lecture courses, especially required courses for popular majors. As an undergraduate, you may have to compete for some resources with graduate students, but the facilities and opportunities will be very high quality. Campus life at these universities is vibrant and active, but many students may live off-campus.
Liberal Arts Colleges (e.g., Amherst, Swarthmore, Oberlin) are small with close-knit communities. They typically have fewer than 5000 undergraduate students and very few graduate students. Undergraduate education is the focus of these colleges, so class sizes are small, most of the classes are taught by professors, and you will be expected to participate in the classroom. Liberal arts colleges emphasize a well-rounded education in humanities, STEM, and the arts. Academically, you will be encouraged (and often required!) to explore a wide range of academic fields before focusing on your major. Liberal Arts Colleges may be smaller and have fewer resources than a large university, but undergraduate students have access to just about everything the college has to offer. Living in the dormitories is encouraged, and students are heavily engaged in campus life.
Historically Black Colleges and Universities (e.g., Howard, Spelman, Tuskegee University) were established before the Civil Rights Act when most higher education institutions denied access to Black students. There are 101 HBCUs in the United States. Most focus on undergraduate education, but some offer graduate programs as well. HBCUs can be either public or private institutions. While they now admit students of all races, most still have a Black majority and emphasize creating a supportive atmosphere for the empowerment of traditionally marginalized students.
Women’s Colleges (e.g., Barnard, Smith, Scripps) admit only female students. Most women’s colleges were founded in the late 1800s when women were denied access to higher education. There are currently 33 women’s colleges in the United States. The majority are liberal arts colleges with tight-knit, supportive communities. These colleges also tend to have a larger population of female faculty. A number of women’s colleges have adopted policies to include transgender students.
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. For further help narrowing your list, read our advice about college fit.
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