Start your college search by exploring a variety of college options! The beauty of the American system of higher education is that there are so many types of schools to choose from, and most students find that one type or another feels like the most comfortable fit. Here's a brief look at the types of institutions available:
Community Colleges and "Junior" Colleges are two year colleges where students can begin their educations either in preparation for a career or in anticipation of transferring to a four-year college. These colleges primarily offer Associate degrees, although some also offer four-year degree programs in some majors. Some two-year colleges offer on campus housing, and most have articulation agreements with four-year colleges, simplifying the process of transferring. Two year colleges can be good options for students who aren't sure they want to commit to a four-year degree program just yet, and for late-bloomers whose grades in high school aren't a reflection of their academic potential. Some examples of two year colleges include: Santa Monica Community College (CA), Dean College (MA), Villa Maria College (NY), and Miami-Dade Community College (FL).
Liberal arts colleges are four-year colleges that focus entirely on undergraduate education (Bachelor's degree). While faculty members often pursue research in their subject areas, professors teach all courses - there are no teaching assistants. Don't let the "arts" in liberal arts fool you into thinking liberal arts colleges are only for students who want to study art. You can study a variety of subjects at liberal arts colleges, and many liberal arts colleges offer particularly strong programs in science. Liberal arts colleges tend to be small (under 3,000 students) so they offer a very personalized educational experience with a great deal of interaction between students and faculty. Liberal arts colleges can be excellent undergraduate choices for students who are interested in applying to graduate school, including medical school, law school, and business programs, because graduate programs value the strong emphasis that liberal arts colleges place on interdisciplinary learning, class discussions, and writing. Some examples of liberal arts colleges are Occidental College (CA), Hamilton College (NY), Whitman College (WA), the College of Wooster (OH), Southwestern College (TX), Swarthmore College (PA), and Beloit College (WI).
Masters Universities are universities offering degrees through the Master's level, although they may offer selected doctoral programs in some academic areas. These schools usually offer some specialized career-focused majors, such as business or engineering, but they do not offer doctoral degrees. Master's universities can be terrific options for students who want a range of career-oriented majors, but they also can be good choices for students who are interested in the traditional liberal arts subjects, such as English, economics, foreign languages, and sciences. Examples of Master's universities include the College of Charleston (SC), Butler University (IN), James Madison University (VA), Loyola Marymount University (CA), Ithaca College (NY), and Salve Regina University (RI).
Research Universities have a primary focus on research and provide education programs through the doctoral (PhD.) level. They typically offer a large number of majors at the undergraduate level, including some in very specialized academic areas. Faculty members are heavily involved with research in their subject areas. Although class sizes can vary from institution to institution, many research universities rely on Teaching Assistants for some portion of undergraduate education. Teaching Assistants are typically graduate level students who "assist" professors with labs, discussion sessions, grading, and other educational functions. Research universities typically offer state of the art research facilities, although competition for undergraduate research opportunities can be intense at some institutions. Research universities run the gamet in size, from schools with 50,000 or more students to smaller institutions with 5,000 or so students. Some examples of research universities are the University of California campuses, the University of Arizona, Emory University (GA), the University of Michigan, Harvard, Syracuse University (NY) Rice University (TX), and Cornell University (NY).
Specialized colleges are schools that specialize in a particular subject or field. For example, Harvey Mudd College (CA), MIT, CalTech, and Rensselear Polytechnic Institute (NY) specialize in science and engineering education. Babson College and Bentley College in Massachusetts specialize in business and economics. There are also specialized colleges for students interested in studying art, music, dance, and film. Examples of arts-focused colleges would include the Julliard School in New York (music), and the California Institute of the Arts (art, music, film).
Religiously-affiliated colleges and universities are schools that have a tie to a particular religon. You do not have to be a member of the religion to attend. Some religiously-affiliated schools heavily integrate religious principles and beliefs into the classroom. Others do not, and there is very little - or no - religious influence in the classroom. Examples of religiously-affiliated colleges include Pepperdine University in California, Calvin College in Michican, and Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.
Single-sex colleges can offer unique leadership and academic opportunities that may not always be available in a co-ed environment. There are close to 100 women's colleges, in the U.S. Examples of women's colleges include Scripps College in California and Smith College in Massachusetts. All-male colleges include Wabash College in Indiana, Hampden-Sydney in Virginia, and Morehouse College in Atlanta.
Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) are institutions that were founded with a mission of serving African American students. Today, HBCUs serve students of all races, although at many HBCU's, the student body remains predominantly African American. HBCU examples include Howard University in Washington D.C., Spelman College in Atlanta, and Hampton University in Virginia.
Military Academies offer both training for a career in the military and an excellent education in more traditional academic areas, especially engineering. Some colleges with a military focus do not require you to pursue a military career after graduation. One example is the California Maritime Academy, a California State University college focused on engineering and science. At other military academies, such as West Point (Army), the U.S. Naval Acaemy, and the Air Force Academy, students pay no tuition; in exchange, they are required to serve in the military after graduation.