A Pocket Primer: Types of Higher Education Institutions

Why do you need this pocket primer*?

  1. Insiders: Hold your own during conference cocktail parties sponsored by Blackbaud and the like. Instead of gripping your fine chardonnay (or rosé, if you’re a junior faculty member) like grim death, you’ll relax and smile knowingly when someone says, “My institution is a work college.” 
  2.  Job seekers: Know the institution’s identity and history before applying and interviewing! 
  3. Prospective students and parents: Realize that choosing a college or university need not be based on whether you like the basketball or football team. There are many great options.
  4. Government officials and board of trustee members: Understand that all colleges and universities aren’t alike. Just because you may have attended one doesn’t mean you should make decisions based on your student experience. 

General Definitions and Framework

Higher Education Institutions:

The Higher Education Act of 1965 (as amended over time) defines, in part, a higher education institution

  1. admits graduates from a school providing secondary education (or equivalent certificate),
  2.  is legally authorized to provide postsecondary education,
  3. provides programs for bachelor’s degree or not less than two-year program appliable toward a bachelor’s degree, or provides programs acceptable for admission to a graduate or professional degree program, or provides at least one year of training in preparation for gainful employment,
  4. a public or non-profit institution, and
  5. is accredited. 

Carnegie Classifications:

Provide a “framework for recognizing and describing institutional diversity in U.S. higher education… Starting in 1970, the Carnegie Commission on Higher Education developed a classification of colleges and universities to support its program of research and policy analysis.”

The basic classifications are

  1. doctoral universities,
  2. master’s colleges and universities,
  3. baccalaureate colleges,
  4. baccalaureate/associate’s colleges,
  5. associate’s colleges,
  6. special focus colleges, and
  7. tribal colleges. 

A Very Concise Dictionary

While Carnegie Classifications categorize institutions into seven different types, institutions identify themselves in various ways. Their names may indicate method of establishment, who is/was serve(d), the disciplines focused on, and the type of education provided. An institution can express itself as one type or many. For example, an institution can identify as a R-1 doctoral (Carnegie Classification), land-grant, polytechnic, NCAA Division III, private, residential, non-profit university—Massachusetts Institute of Technology ‘MIT’ (MA).

The following are terms associated with higher education institutions. There are many nuances and exceptions to these definitions. This dictionary offers a basis for understanding how institutions may define themselves and provides a glimpse into the history of higher education in the U.S. 

‘The Academy’ and academia: Both terms are synonymous with higher education and are derived from the ideals found in Plato’s school of philosophy, called ‘The Akademia,’ c. 365 BCE. The terms refer to the place and culture of teaching, higher learning, and research. 

accredited institution: An institution that meets quality standards established by non-governmental accrediting agencies and federal and state approval agencies. There are both institutional and program-specific accrediting agencies. The US Department of Education provides an overview, history, and list of agencies. Websites of accrediting bodies list accredited institutions.

college: Typically, an institution that focuses on four-year baccalaureate degrees, but sometimes also confer associate’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees. The second oldest institution and the oldest to continuously use ‘college’ in its name is the College of William and Mary (VA), chartered in 1693.

community college (typically, public) and junior college (typically, private): Institutions that focus on two-year associates degrees, vocational, technical, and professional training. The first of the type was Joliet Junior College (IL), a public institution established in 1901. Also, there are military junior colleges (See ‘military schools’).

Division I, II, or III: Refers to the National College Athletic Association’s (NCAA) three-division structure for organizing athletic programs at various sizes and types of institutions. Each division has separate conferences (or groupings of teams) that compete against each other annually such as the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC), Big 10, and the Ivy League.

for-profit institution: An institution created privately by businesses and companies. The earned revenue is returned to non-educational expenses and investors. More information can be found here.

Hispanic-Serving Institution (HSI): This name is a U.S. Department of Education designation afforded by application. An institution must have at least 25% Hispanic students to be considered. As of 2018, there were 411 HSIs. 

Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs):  Are defined by The Higher Education Act of 1965 as “. . . any historically black college or university that was established prior to 1964, whose principal mission was, and is, the education of black Americans. . .” The earliest HBCUs were started in the Northern US in the early- and mid- 1800s. Some were established as professional schools, such as teacher’s colleges. Additionally, HBCUs were established through the Morrill Act of 1862 and the Second Morrill Act of 1890 (See ‘land-grant institution’). The oldest HBCU is Cheyney University of Pennsylvania, established in 1837. In 2020, there were 107 HBCUs in the US.

institutes and academies: Institutions that focus on a specific topic, research area, or discipline. Examples in the arts include the Maryland Institute and College of Art ‘MICA’, Pratt Institute ‘Pratt,’ and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art.

land-grant institution: An institution established as the result of the Morrill Act in 1862 or the Second Morrill Act in 1890. The first act, modeled after Michigan State University, afforded states (excluding Southern states engaged in the Civil War against the US government) to use or sell federal lands to establish universities focused on scientific agriculture, and civil and mechanical engineering. Later, the Second Morrill Act of 1890 included Southern states previously excluded. It should be noted these federal lands were expropriated tribal lands from Native peoples.

Some names used by land-grant institutions include:

  1. Agricultural and Mechanical or ‘A & M’
  2. Agricultural and Technical or ‘A & T’
  3. Polytechnic or ‘Tech’
  4. State, but not all state universities, are land-grant institutions
  5. Institute

Not all institutions using these names are land-grant institutions including Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute ‘RPI’, established in 1824, and the first of its type.

liberal arts college: An institution focused on a broad field of study related to disciplines in the arts, humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences. Communication, critical thinking, and creative problem-solving are emphasized in small classroom settings. The moniker ‘liberal’ is not a political distinction.

men’s college: An institution that enrolls only males (some include students who identify as men). Until the late 20th century, most colleges and universities only served men (primarily white men). The last Ivy League school to become coeducational was Columbia University in 1983. Virginia Military Institute became coeducational in 1997 after a Supreme Court ruling. Today, there are three men-only institutions (all private): Hampden-Sydney College (VA), Morehouse College (GA), and Wabash College (IN).

military school: An institution that trains officers for the US military; there are three types. Federal Service Academies are federal higher education institutions for training commissioned officers; there are five. Senior Military Colleges are institutions for educating and training reserve officers; there are ten. Military Junior Colleges are two-year institutions training commissioned officers for the US Army Reserve; there are four.

nonprofit institution: A US Internal Revenue Service designated institution, who is as tax-exempt through application and as defined by IRS section 501(c)3. Commonly referred to as a charitable organization or 501(c)3, a non-profit institution is organized and operated exclusively for educational purposes, and as such may receive state and federal aid as well as tax-deductible contributions. According to NCES, of the 3947 higher education institutions, 3259 were nonprofit institutions in 2019.

non-residential (also, ‘commuter’) college or university: An institution where students do not live in campus afforded housing such as dormitories, and other campus life activities are limited or not provided. Many community colleges and junior colleges are non-residential.

normal school and teacher’s college: These institutions once trained students for the teaching profession. Normal schools trained teachers for primary schools. The name comes from St. Jean-Baptiste La Salle of France, who created the concept of instilling behavioral norms in students. In the US, normal schools were first established in the early- and mid- 1800s. The second US normal school, established in 1839, still exists today as Framingham State University (MA). Many normal schools changed their names to teacher’s colleges in the early 20th century. The word ‘teacher’s’ was dropped in the mid- and late- 20th century when institutions became comprehensive colleges and universities. Many, but not all, normal schools and teacher’s colleges enrolled women only. There were also HBCU normal and teacher’s colleges.

private (also, ‘independent’) institution: An institution operating independently from the state government. Many, but not all, are non-profit organizations and accredited.

professional school: An institution that prepares a student for a particular profession, practice, or industry such as law, business, and medicine. The degree may be an associate’s, baccalaureate, master’s, or doctorate. A professional school may be embedded in an institution or be a stand-alone. 

public (also, ‘state’) institution: An institution operating as a part of state government. 

religiously affiliated: An institution that identifies with a religion, denomination, or faith. The manner and extent to which religion is manifested in the education of students vary widely. The oldest institution, Harvard University, was founded in 1636 by Puritans. According to 2019 NCES data, of the 3947 degree-granting postsecondary institutions, there were 866 religiously affiliated institutions.

residential college or university: An institution where students live on campus in housing provided. Student, faculty, and staff participate in a learning community, which integrates classroom experiences and other campus life activities. Also, there are low-residency programs at residential institutions that combine distance education and residential experiences. The first low-residency program was created at Goddard College (VT) in 1963. 

seminary and divinity school: An institution that prepares students to become an ordained priest, minister, or rabbi. The first seminary in the US was Andover Theological Seminary (MA), founded in 1807 (now Andover Newton Seminary at Yale Divinity School).

tribal Colleges and Universities (TCU): Institutions “created and chartered by its own tribal government or the federal government for a specific purpose: to provide higher education opportunities to American Indians through programs that are locally and culturally based, holistic, and supportive.” TCUs emerged in the late 1960s as a movement to stop eradicating American Indian culture in education. The first TCU, Diné College (AZ), was established in 1968. Currently, there are 37 TCUs

university: Typically, an institution larger than a college offering a wide variety of undergraduate and graduate programs emphasizing research.

women’s college: An institution that only enrolls females (some also admit non-binary students and students who identify as women). Many women’s colleges began as female seminaries (also known as ‘academies’) and focused on comportment. In the 1800s, female normal schools emerged, and later transformed into teacher’s colleges, and finally comprehensive institutions. The first institution chartered as a four-year, baccalaureate granting women’s college was Wesleyan College (GA) in 1836. Currently, there are 37 women’s colleges (all private).

work College: An undergraduate institution that requires students to participate in a work, learning, and service program all four years. Its predecessor was the manual labor college of the 19th century. The purpose of both the manual labor and work colleges was to provide opportunities to those without means to attend college (students built and sustained the college community in exchange for their education). Today, nine work colleges are overseen by the US Department of Education and must meet specific requirements for the designation.

*Sources, histories, listings used for this compilation are embedded as hyperlinks. This primer is only meant to serve as a brief overview. The author acknowledges that there remains a greater depth and breadth to the history of individual institutions, types of institutions, and higher education in the US at large. Due to space constraints, identifiers related to various ranking agencies such as ‘military-friendly,’ ‘LGBTQIA-friendly,’ etc. are not included.