American Colleges

Is there a difference between colleges, universities and community colleges in the USA?

The short answer is YES!

American College or University?

American colleges focus on undergraduate education . 

Although American students tend to use the terms college and university interchangeably, and are just as likely to say “I’m going back to college this weekend” as “I’m going back to university”, American colleges generally do not offer postgraduate degree courses, only undergraduate ones.

There are, of course, exceptions to this as to every rule. Some American colleges, such as St Joseph’s in New York, do provide a very limited number of graduate programs, as well as a large number of undergraduate courses. Similarly, while universities have a strong focus on research, certain colleges also offer research options in their programs. But, as a rule of thumb, anyone wishing to do a Master’s or a PhD should start by looking through university prospectuses.

Just to make matters more complicated, universities often contain a number of colleges. Harvard College is, in fact, part of Harvard University! To sum up, large universities can divide their departments into colleges, which specialise in particular areas such as engineering or business, but these colleges remain part of the university and the university admissions process and requirements apply.

American colleges – characteristics

American colleges tend to be far smaller than universities – which can have tens of thousands of students – and this means that college classes usually have fewer students and it is easier to have personal contact with your lecturers and professors. Both colleges and universities can be private or publicly funded, and many require you to sit either the SAT or ACT examinations, but universities have larger campuses, offer a wider range of facilities in terms of sports, sororities and fraternities, and have extensive amenities and facilities. If you are interested in joining dozens of societies, playing several sports, want to act on an auditorium stage and enjoy socialising, then university is more likely to meet your needs than college. This is because university campuses are often huge and more like small towns, so students who live together in on-site dorms are also encouraged to play together outside lectures, and be part of the campus community.

American colleges and universities share yet another characteristic, since both institutions offer their students an opportunity to spend the first two years of their undergraduate life following a wide core curriculum, before expecting them to declare what major they will choose to specialise in for the remaining two years. This reflects the American education system’s emphasis on general education. It allows students to link subjects such as German and physics, drama and psychology and any number of odd combinations, while they check where their true passions and interests lie!In the end, the most important thing to bear in mind is that American colleges and universities are academic equals. There is no real difference between going to university or going to college, apart from the level of education you are interested in pursuing –undergraduate or postgraduate.  And, remember, in 1989 Lasell College rebranded itself Lasell University, without changing staff, course curricula or buildings. Sometimes, the name is just a label. What matters are your preferences: what you want to study, the kind of environment you want to live in, the location, the size of the campus and the modules on offer!

American Community Colleges

There are 1000 plus publicly-funded community colleges – formerly known as junior colleges – in the USA . These institutions offer two-year associate degrees, as well as certificates which prepare students for entry level work, GED classes, remedial education and high school diplomas. Community colleges serve their community, and housing is off-campus, with international students opting to stay with host families or rent accommodation. Some 100,000 international students, 20 per cent of the total student body, attend community college in the USA, with their top five destinations being:

  • California
  • Texas
  • Florida
  • Washington State
  • New York

Advantages of choosing community college

There are several major advantages to choosing a community college in the USA:

  •  Fees are far lower than college and university, ranging from $8-£10,000a year, on average.
  • Most community colleges offer open access, which means that they do not require ACT and SAT scores, but ask applicants to sit placement tests, in English and Maths. If you do not have a TOEFL certificate, for example, you may be allowed to do an on-site test and take ESL classes, if you need additional help with English. Requirements vary from college to college, so make sure you do your research online before submitting an application.
  • After gaining your associate degree, you can transfer to an American university, to do another two years and get a bachelor’s qualification. There are a few points to bear in mind here. First of all, by doing two years at community college and two at university or college, you save a substantial amount of money, get language support and benefit from small classes. Since American colleges and universities do not specialise until year three, you will not be falling behind if you decide to go to community college for two years and get an associate degree, then transfer and specialise.

Community colleges have articulation agreements, or partnerships, with specific universities. For example, Santa Barbara Community College transfers its students to the University of California- Davis -and as long as you have completed your assignments and have a good grade point average, you will find it  simple to apply to transfer to  your community college’s  partner university. Transfer applications are much less competitive than freshman applications. In some cases you will be automatically admitted. If this a route you would like to take, and 46 per cent of all US undergraduates come from community colleges, make sure that you check   what articulation agreements the community college has in place for its students. Some agreements are related to programs of study, others are simple transfer partnerships.

I want to study in the USA – what are the next steps?

The US offers thousands of options when you are deciding where to study for your degree, and the staggering number of choices should be celebrated. Sit back and consider where you would like to live for four years, whether you enjoy small or large communities, want to be in a vibrant urban environment or somewhere calmer, rural and smaller. Whatever your dream destination, course and location, one thing is certain: it is there, in the USA, waiting for you!

If you would like to talk through your options, Elab is only a phone call or an email away. We are ready to guide and advise you and provide you with the information which will help you find the ideal American college, university or community college.

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