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Types of Postsecondary Schools & Education

Higher Education is the Non-compulsory Educational LevelTypes of Postsecondary Schools & Education

Post-secondary or tertiary education, also referred to as third-stage, third level education, or higher education, is the non-compulsory educational level.

Higher education, non-compulsory educational level, is education provided by universities, vocational universities (community colleges, liberal arts colleges, and technical colleges, etc.) and other collegial institutions that award academic degrees, such as career colleges following the completion of a school that provides secondary education, such as a high school and secondary K-12 schools.

There are a variety of postsecondary schools from which to choose when you begin your college search. By researching the different types of schools, you will be able to make an educated decision about which one is right for you.

College Preparation

The US education structure includes 12 years of regular schooling (K1 to K-12), preceded by a year or two of pre-school education (kinder garden), and followed by a four-stage postsecondary higher education degree system (associate, bachelor's, master's, doctorate) plus various non-degree certificates and diplomas on the way. In addition, there are special education services, adult basic and continuing education, leisure learning programs, and continuing professional education and training programs. Completion of each level or stage is a prerequisite for access to the next, and a variety of assessment and evaluation tools are used to determine learning needs, academic achievement standards, and eligibility to proceed to higher levels of education.

What kind of college do you see yourself attending? Different types of postsecondary colleges suit different types of people. Most postsecondary schools can be described as public or private, two year or four-year.

Public institutions are state supported. Private for-profit institutions are businesses. Private not-for-profit institutions are independent - for instance, the school might have been established by a church or through local community donations rather than by the state government.

Four-year institutions offer bachelor's degrees, and some offer advanced degrees. two year institutions offer associate's degrees. Less-than-two year institutions offer training and award certificates of completion.

Look at these descriptions to help you see where you fit.

Types of Postsecondary Schools

Postsecondary Education

Distance Education

Types of Postsecondary Schools


A four-year college grants bachelor's degrees (Bachelor of Arts; Bachelor of Science). Some colleges also award master's degrees, and some also offer a two year Associate of Arts (AA) degree. Colleges can be specialized (for example, in nursing) or they can offer a broad curriculum, like the liberal arts which focus on the humanities, social sciences, and sciences. Classes tend to be smaller than those in universities. This provides students with more personal attention and better access to the faculty.

A university grants bachelor's and master's degrees, and sometimes usually include a liberal arts college, some professional schools or colleges, and graduate programs such as a law school or medical school. Universities tend to be larger than colleges, focus more on scholarly or scientific research, and might have larger class sizes. This means they can offer the two year and four-year degrees as well as graduate degrees in advanced studies beyond four years. Universities offer a huge course selection and may have extensive resources. Class size varies, depending on the size of the university, the subject area, and the course level. University professors are usually involved in research. Graduate students, rather than professors, teach some of the classes. (These graduate students are called Teaching Assistants or TAs.)

Community colleges:
A public two year college granting associate's degrees in two year liberal arts program and sometimes certificates in particular technical (career-related) subjects. Typically community college are open admissions. They are open to those 18 years of age or older. However, to be placed into a major, the individual must have a high school diploma, GED, or be placed according to ability to benefit. Some students start their postsecondary education at a community college and then transfer to a four-year school, either because a community college tends to be cheaper than a four-year college, or because admissions standards at community colleges are often less strenuous than at four-year schools. But mostly serve people from nearby communities and offer academic courses, technical courses, and continuing education courses. Public institutions are supported by state and local revenues

Junior colleges:
Similar to a community college, except that a junior college is usually a private school.

Career school, technical school, or vocational/trade school:
These terms are often used interchangeably. May be public or private, two year or less-than-two year. Study programs at these schools prepare students for specific careers and may last weeks, months, or years, depending on career requirements. At these schools, students usually receive a license, a certificate, or an associate degree. Career schools offer courses that are designed to prepare students for specific careers, from welding to cosmetology to medical imaging, etc. The difference between technical schools and trade schools is that technical schools teach the science behind the occupation, while trade schools focus on hands-on application of skills needed to do the job.

Public vs. Private
Private and independent colleges and universities
offer a wide range of degrees and certificates up to the doctoral level, as well as professional degrees such as law and medicine. These schools are diverse in character, academic emphasis, and origins. Some schools have a religious affiliation; others are secular. Private schools may be profit or non-profit institutions. Typically, private schools give weight to personal characteristics and activities in addition to considering GPA and test scores. While many private schools are considerably more expensive than comparable state institutions, they also tend to offer more generous financial aid packages. Many students have found the actual out-of-pocket cost to attend a private college to be less than the cost of the state schools to which they were accepted. On the one hand, public colleges are usually less expensive, particularly for in-state residents. They get most of their money from the state or local government. Check out your state's Guide to Residency. Private colleges rely on tuition, fees, endowments, and other private sources. On the other hand, private colleges are usually smaller and can offer more personalized attention (and some believe, more prestige).

Special Interests

  • Single-Sex: All four-year public colleges and most private schools are coed. In terms of single-sex colleges, there are about 50 specifically for men and about 70 specifically for women. Some may enroll a few men or women.
  • Religiously-Affiliated Colleges: Some private colleges are affiliated with a religious faith. The affiliation may be historic only or it may affect day-to-day student life.
  • Historically-Black Colleges: Historically-black colleges find their origins in the time when African-American students were systematically denied access to most other colleges and universities. These schools offer students a unique opportunity to experience an educational community in which they're part of the majority.
  • Hispanic-Serving Institutes: There are about 135 institutions designated by the federal government as "Hispanic serving" At these schools, Hispanic students comprise at least 25 percent of the total full-time undergraduate enrollment.

Types of Postsecondary Education

Undergraduate Postsecondary Education

Undergraduate postsecondary education is the U.S. terminology for formal education after graduating from secondary school but prior to advanced study in the research disciplines or professional fields.

Undergraduate studies in the United States are generally divided into two phases: a set of distributed course requirements that must be completed involving basic study in several subjects; and a concentrated program of study in one or more subjects.

Two postsecondary degrees are awarded at the undergraduate level:

  • The Associate Degree and
    • Associates of Arts (AA)
    • Associates of Science (AS)
    • Associates of Applied Science (AAS)
  • the Bachelor's Degree.

Students at the undergraduate levels may earn certificates or diplomas in addition to degrees or instead of them.

Graduate Postsecondary Education

Graduate education is the term used in the United States for studies undertaken after the award of a bachelor's degree. It corresponds to what is called post-graduate or advanced education in some other systems.

Education at this level in the U. S. can be of two types:

Professional studies that require the student to have already earned an undergraduate degree.

Research studies following either a bachelor's degree or a professional degree.

Two postsecondary degrees are awarded at the graduate level:

  1. The Master's Degree and
  2. the Doctoral Degree.

Distance Education

Distance education is considered to be a vehicle for delivering education to persons whose location, circumstances or work make remote links necessary or convenient, and is defined, for the purposes of accreditation review, as a formal educational process in which the majority of the instruction occurs when student and instructor are not in the same place. Instruction may be synchronous or asynchronous. It is not considered to be a separate type of education altogether.

Distance education is an increasingly popular way to study for everything from a short professional course to a graduate degree in the United States, and there are numerous institutions offering undergraduate degree programs using distance education teaching methods involving. "the process of extending learning, or delivering instructional resource-sharing opportunities, to locations away from a classroom, building or site, to another classroom, building or site by using video, audio, computer, multimedia communications, or some combination of these with other traditional delivery methods."

Because distance education is less expensive to support and is not constrained by geographic considerations, it offers opportunities in situations where traditional education has difficulty operating. Students with scheduling or distance problems can benefit, as can workers, because distance education can be more flexible in terms of time and can be delivered virtually anywhere. Studies indicate that distance learning can be as effective as the traditional format when the methods are appropriate to the teaching tasks, there is student-teacher interaction, and the teachers provide students with appropriate and timely feedback.

For international students this means that they can study for a U.S. degree without leaving their home country, though they will almost certainly have to go to the United States for short periods of face-to-face contact and study on the campus. Studying for a degree using distance education requires students to have special qualities such as self-discipline and the ability to work on their own. If you are considering distance education, you should thoroughly research the quality of the program, the accreditation of the institution in the United States, and its recognition in your home country to make sure this option is the appropriate one for your future goals.

Adapted from the articles "Types of Colleges: Which Type Suits You Best?"and "Historically Black Colleges and Universities." © 2006 Reprinted with permission. Visit

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