American Higher Education System at a Glance

If you are looking forward to completing your post-secondary education in the United States.  You will need to choose between a College and a University. In America, they use both “college” and “university “as shorthand for higher education. It is tough to understand the difference between these two. In order to clear your confusion and a better understanding of the Higher Education system in the USA, we have collected little information that will explain how higher education in the U.S.A works.

Private vs. Public

The higher education system in the USA is quite different than any other developed country. The U.S. government doesn’t control the education system. Moreover, they have two types of institutions, either Public or Private.

Private schools:

Independent bodies of trustees control private Schools, and they are more expensive to attend as they lack Government Funding.

Public Schools:


Public schools are shared between local and state governments. Compared to Private schools, they are less expensive as they receive lots of Government funding.

American higher education can be classified into these categories:

State College or University


As the name suggests, a state college/university is run by a central state or local government. In fact, each of the 50 U.S. states has at least one state university. However, many states have multiple state colleges (which are different from universities, remember) that receive most of the funding.

It’s pretty easy to figure out which schools are state-run, as the majority bears the name of the state they’re in. For example, Oregon State University is in Oregon, and Southeast Missouri State University is in Missouri.

Community College

Source: Shoreline Community College

American community colleges are similar to Canada’s colleges, which provide technical training and diplomas to match shifting labor trends. A community college typically offers two-year associate degree programs. These programs work as a platform for students who want to do their four-year degree program at a university. Students can transfer their credits to a University and complete a four-year university or enter the workforce directly. Students will also find English as a Second Language (ESL) programs here or have done ILETS from PIE International Education which will help prepare them for university-level coursework. Community colleges are not residential and may be supported locally, regionally, or by the state government. In order to understand the difference between a College and a University, we can simply say,

  • A College offers undergraduate programs only.
  • Unlike Colleges, most Universities offer both undergraduate and graduate programs. Well, there are exceptions! Some institutions still call themselves “colleges” even though they offer graduate programs (Dartmouth College, Boston College, Monroe College, for example). 

Universities can also have different Colleges under them. For example, Harvard College is Harvard University’s liberal arts college. Basically, Harvard University is a combination of more than 10 graduate and professional schools that includes Harvard Law School, Harvard Business School, and Harvard Medical School.

c) Research vs. Teaching Universities

Additionally, we should also keep in mind that universities can be primarily research or teaching institutions. Generally, large universities are based on research because they have the size and funding to have state-of-the-art equipment and facilities. The downside of research universities is that undergraduate classes are often large and taught by graduate teaching assistants rather than professors.

On the other hand, teaching universities are focused on, well, teaching. Most professors at these schools have full teaching loads and don’t have as much pressure to publish as their colleagues at research institutions. You’ll have to sacrifice facilities and other perks by attending these universities, but they’re a great choice if you value face-to-face time with your professors.

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