Quick Guide: The Many Types of Higher Education

Continuing on After High School
Part 2 of 3

In Part 1, we discussed reasons why you might choose to pursue education after high school, and the different benefits higher education can offer. Now, it’s time to learn about the options available to you. Your choice will depend on what you hope to get out of your higher education experience and what your future plans are.

“An investment in knowledge pays the best interest.”
Benjamin Franklin

When we hear “higher education", we think of the word “college". But there are many different types of schools that provide post-secondary education. These alternatives offer different degrees, certificates and different program areas that are a great benefit to students. Be aware of these differences so you can understand the options available to you.

Below, we’ll look at the main types of higher education offered in the U.S. and advise you on who should attend which one. 

Vocational School (Trade School)

If you know what type of work you'd like to do after high school, your next step is to research what training you'll need. Many professions require a diploma or certificate (rather than a degree) that can be obtained through a focused, job-specific study at a vocational school. To see which careers a vocational school can qualify you for, along with other helpful information, visit

Certificate programs usually take less than a year to complete; diploma programs can take between a year and a year-and-a-half to complete.

Why consider attending?

Trade schools are for students who want to pursue higher education for career preparation, and only need a diploma or certificate. These schools offer a fast track into various careers without course requirements outside of your chosen career area. 

Community College (Junior College)

There is some overlap between vocational schools and community colleges, as the latter offer similar certificate and diploma programs. But community colleges also offer Associate’s degrees, which take two or more years of full-time study to earn. Some Associate’s degree programs are career-specific, while others are broader. See a list of Associate’s degree programs at

In a community college, degree programs involve broader study and there are course requirements outside one’s specific field of study. Some students transfer into Bachelor’s degree programs after completing an Associate’s degree.

A Bachelor’s degree takes four to five years to complete, and for those who attended community college, only two or three additional years of study are required to complete this program. Other students enter the work force after earning their Associate’s degree.

Why consider attending?

If you have an idea of what career you would like to enter, but want a broader education than a trade school offers then a community college might be right for you. It’s also a good option if your desired career path requires at least an Associate’s degree.

Community college is also a good fit if you have an idea of what field you want to study but aren't 100% committed to a particular profession. Finally, this type of institution is a good starting point for students who want to pursue a Bachelor’s degree, but would like to begin with an Associate’s to test out the waters.

Institutes of Technology

If you're interested in an intensive study of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields, you should consider attending an Institute of Technology. These schools offer a number of degree programs, from Associate’s and Bachelor’s to advanced degrees – including Master’s (two years of additional study) and PhDs (usually four to six years of additional study after Master’s level). 

Why consider attending?

If you're interested in two or more years of study focused on the STEM fields, and/or want to enter a profession that requires a Bachelor’s or higher in those fields, this might be a good choice. However, several colleges and universities offer programs emphasizing STEM fields as well; you’ll need to research the many programs available and the institutions that offer them in order to decide which is best for you. The information below on colleges and universities, along with considerations outlined in Part 3 of this series, can help you make an informed decision.

Art and Design Schools

If you're interested in an intensive study of an art field – drawing, painting, graphic design, etc. – you should consider attending a school known primarily for its art programs. There are a couple different types of art schools. A nonprofit art school offers Bachelor’s and advanced degrees in fine arts and operates similar to a liberal arts college (more on that to follow) because students are expected to participate in a broad range of studies.

For-profit art schools operate more like vocational schools; they are focused on art itself and are career-oriented. These schools offer everything from certificates to Associate’s degrees to more advanced degrees.

Why consider attending?

If you want to attend a program known for its strength in the arts but would also like a broad base of study, consider attending a non-profit art school. If you have a specific art career in mind and don’t wish to study broadly in other fields, you may prefer a for-profit art and design school. For-profit schools are also a good fit for young people who want at least a certificate or Associate’s degree, and wish to study further.

Liberal Arts College

Liberal arts colleges offer a wide range of disciplines, from the humanities (literature, philosophy, English, etc.) and social sciences (psychology and sociology) to visual arts and the hard sciences. Most liberal arts colleges have course requirements that provide a broad range of study, particularly in the first two years. Students may not be expected to pick a major (a particular field of study) until they have completed two years.

Liberal arts colleges offer Bachelor’s degrees, and some offer more advanced degrees as well (note: Georgetown University reports that approximately 35% of job openings in 2020 will require a Bachelor’s degree). These colleges are smaller than universities.

Why consider attending?

Liberal arts colleges are great schools for those whose prospective careers require at least a Bachelor’s degree. They’re also ideal if you aren't sure what you want to do, but want to receive further education and explore your interests. Liberal arts colleges are good environments for developing oneself intellectually and gaining a large knowledge base.

As these schools are smaller than universities, they're also a good fit for students who want individual attention from professors and smaller class sizes. 

Private or Public University

Universities offer a wide range of degrees like liberal arts colleges, but there are a few differences. Though sizes vary, universities are larger than colleges. Most importantly, universities are distinguished from colleges because their focus is not only on providing education, but on generating research. Faculty members conduct research themselves, and universities grant advanced degrees to students who conduct research as well. All universities offer advanced degrees up to the PhD (doctoral) level. 

Why consider attending?

If you're pursuing a Bachelor’s degree, you may prefer a university over a liberal arts college if you want a wide variety of options in regards to courses and degrees. Also, universities have a larger staff of professionals at the top of their field and therefore these institutions offer greater prestige.

However, their larger size, and the fact that professors are involved not only in providing undergraduate education but in both research and teaching graduate students as well, means that students can expect larger class sizes and less individual attention than they would receive at a college. Undergraduate students at universities will also be taught by graduate students in addition to professors.

Finally, universities tend to have large departments dedicated to specific professional studies, such as business, engineering and nursing. So students who want a broad-based education as well as career-specific training may prefer a university.

Online College

Today, many of the certificates, diplomas and degrees offered at physical colleges can be obtained online. Distance learning may be a lot cheaper than attending a physical school, and these programs offer more flexible schedules. These programs require personal organization, motivation and commitment. While some students work better in an environment with other learning students and with face-to-face contact with professors, others can thrive academically without them. 

Why consider attending?

If you want or need control over your schedule, you'll appreciate the flexibility most online programs offer. Students with children, those who want to enter the work force right away while pursuing their education and people who want to remain in their hometowns but want more educational opportunities than are available in their location, for example, may find online college to be an attractive option. 

Above are the seven main types of institutions of higher education in the United States. There is some overlap between them; for example, some art and design schools are vocational, and some liberal arts schools offer Associate’s degrees. You'll have to do your own research, guided by your unique educational goals and desires, to determine what option suits you best.

This article series cannot choose your school for you, but it can help you get some grounding in the sometimes dizzying world of higher education opportunities.

In part 3, we’ll make note of some additional considerations, both academic and non-academic, that young people should keep in mind when selecting where to seek continued education, including financial and social matters. 

Written by Amée LaTour


Part 1:
Top 4 Benefits of Higher Education
Continuing on After High School

Part 3:
8 Tips for Choosing the Right College
Continuing on After High School

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“An investment in knowledge pays the best interest.” Benjamin Franklin