There are a variety of higher education options available in the U.S. For example, you can attend community colleges, four-year universities and colleges, continuing education programs, and more. Each option allows people with different educational backgrounds, financial circumstances, goals, and interests to access higher education; but you should understand the differences in order to choose the educational path that is best for you.
Understand the Types of Schools
Do you know the difference between an adult education program, a continuing education program, and a certificate program? Do you know the difference between a community college and a four-year college?
The differences can be significant; understanding the variety of education options in the U.S. is the first step in making a good choice for you. You can begin by visiting the U.S. Department of Education website to understand the U.S. education system and how to choose a school or program.
Note: In many cases, if you want to attend a college or university in the U.S. or Canada, you may be able to transfer some credits for courses you have already taken abroad. For more information, see our post on How to Transfer Credits.
Here is a broad overview of the U.S. educational system:
- Private vs. public colleges and universities: Public colleges are funded by local and state governments and typically have lower tuition rates than private colleges. For students who are residents of the state where a college is located, tuition is lower than for students who are not. Private universities offer the same tuition rate for all students regardless of state residency.
- Community colleges vs. four-year colleges and universities: Community colleges offer associate degrees, typically earned in two years. These schools are often a good stepping stone for those transitioning to a new career. Some community colleges partner with four-year colleges that allow students to transfer and earn a higher degree for less cost. Four-year colleges award bachelor’s degrees and some may also offer advanced degrees. Universities award degrees at the bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral level. Universities may also have advanced degree professional schools, such as law or medical schools.
- Private career colleges: Also known as technical or vocational schools, these can be for-profit businesses. Choose your program carefully. For more guidance, see the Choose a Career School Carefully fact sheet from the Office of Federal Student Aid.
- Online courses and programs: Although these programs may seem like an attractive alternative to the traditional college route, you may benefit immensely from face-to-face interaction with other students, practicing your language skills, learning about another culture, and expanding your network. You will also have access to career counseling and placement services at a traditional campus that may be helpful.
As you do research, beware of scams. Check to see if the program is listed on the U.S. Department of Education’s Database of Accredited Postsecondary Institutions and Programs.
Identify Your Interests and Goals
It is easier to select a school or program if you take the time to assess your interests and identify what you hope to gain from further education—including your career goals. Assessing your goals and interests will help you focus on the types of programs and schools that best meet your needs. For example, you may want to learn certain technical skills to help you find immediate employment or you may seek to complete a degree program.
If you need help choosing what kind of school is right for you, review the Office of Federal Student Aid resources for helpful information on defining your goals for furthering your education. It is also useful to identify areas you may need to improve. For example, you may want to practice your English language skills.
Research Specific Schools
After you have chosen the type of program that is right for you, research individual schools to find the one that meets your academic interests and career goals.
When you have identified a few options, carefully review the website of the school you want to attend, attend an information session or open house, or schedule an informational interview with an admissions counselor.
After you have gathered detailed information on the schools you are interested in, compare the advantages and disadvantages. In addition to the academic offerings and cost, other characteristics to look for include flexible course schedules, support services, and the availability of financial aid.