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  • Writer's pictureAlison Merzel

College vs. university? Public vs. private? What is the difference anyways?

When most high school students begin thinking about colleges, their list typically begins with schools they have heard of - those their parents or older siblings have attended, those featured on neighborhood yard signs announcing the destination of high school graduates, those located in close geographic proximity to home, those with strong brand recognition or prestige.

I would bet that they haven't spent much time considering the differences between a public institution and a private one, a college vs. a university, a vocational college and a special interest college.

Here is a little guide to help differentiate between these types of schools:

Public institutions are primarily funded by state governments. Since in-state residents are paying taxes to the state government, their tuition is heavily subsidized by the state and therefore is lower than that of out-of-state residents.

Private institutions are funded primarily through tuition and fee revenue and the support of endowments and other private gifts. While they tend to be more costly in terms of tuition, they typically have more flexibility to offer grants and scholarships, while public institutions may rely more heavily on federal aid programs like work-study.

A college is typically a smaller institution that focuses on undergraduate education of some sort and offers one type of degree - a two-year (community) college provides an associate's degree, while a four-year college provides a bachelor's degree.

A liberal arts college offers a breadth of courses in the liberal arts, which include social sciences, arts, and the humanities, and prepares students for a variety of career paths or for graduate study. A liberal arts college leads to a four-year bachelor's degree. Many liberal arts colleges are called "universities" (e.g. Denison University, Colgate University).

Vocational schools or technical colleges offer career-focused degrees, teaching specific skills or providing training for a specialized field or industry, like dental hygiene, cosmetology, plumbing, information technology, construction, etc.

Some students will look for a college with a particular student population or academic interest - a women's college (Smith College), a Jesuit college (Boston College), a music conservatory (Oberlin Conservatory of Music) or arts college (CCAD), for example.

A university typically provides undergraduate and graduate level education. The highest level of university is a tier 1 research level doctoral university (e.g. The Ohio State University), while some universities stop at the master's level (eg. Otterbein University).

Of course there are exceptions to some of these rules, but this may help students filter through their options a little more easily - if you know that you aren't ready for a four-year undergraduate residential campus experience or do not think that is the right path for you, consider a community college or technical/career-based program.

If you have an artistic talent and passion to dive into a professional curriculum focused on the arts, perhaps a conservatory is a better fit for you than a BFA at a liberal arts college or larger university.

Maybe your goal is to serve your country. If you have the academic aptitude, physical strength, athleticism, discipline and commitment to service, you may be interested in considering one of the military academies.

Whatever your interests or strengths, there are options for you should you wish to pursue your education. The sky is the limit!

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