There are many types of colleges and universities in the United States, and several different ways in which Americans identify them.

Classification can be based on whether a school is financially supported by a state or not, the history of a school, how and when it was first established, or how the school primarily functions now. International students – coming from quite different educational educational systems – may be unfamiliar with the ways schools are sometimes classified in America, so here’s some more information:

“Public” Universities
These are state-affiliated institutions that are publicly supported (financed by public taxes) and they’re usually large in size. They normally offer all levels of degrees and many different fields of study. Public colleges and universities are relatively inexpensive for residents of the state where the schools are located (since they’re funded in large part by state tax revenues). Foreign students pay “out-of-state” tuition, which is higher, often significantly so.

International students may find it hard to gain admission to these schools at the undergraduate level, because preference is often given to state residents. This is especially true in the fields of engineering, business, and computer science. Many state university systems have a number of different campuses situated all around the state. Sometimes one campus will be the preeminent one in terms of research and graduate study – this school is sometimes referred to as the “flagship” campus of the system. There are many notable public universities across the country. Here are just a few examples:

  • Purdue University
  • Pennsylvania State University
  • Ohio State University
  • University of California
  • University of North Carolina
  • University of Texas

Small Liberal Arts Colleges
There are hundreds of small liberal arts colleges throughout the United States, enrolling anywhere from fewer than 1,000 students to several thousand. They are usually dedicated primarily to the undergraduate study of the traditional arts and sciences disciplines: Humanities, sciences, and social sciences.

Strictly liberal arts colleges are often quite old (by U.S. standards, anyway!) and are usually private schools (meaning they’re supported by tuition fees, private donations, and grants). Many of these colleges were traditionally single-sex (all-men or all-women), but that’s only true these days in a handful of cases, usually exclusively women’s colleges. Sometimes these schools were founded with a religious affiliation, but the overwhelming majority of them don’t take this into account anymore in terms of admissions or day-to-day student life.

These colleges are usually highly rated institutions because they stress small classes, individual attention for their students, and a close relationship between the faculty and students. Many of them also generally have stringent admissions standards. Among these schools are:

  • Amherst
  • Williams
  • Swarthmore
  • Bowdoin
  • Smith
  • Mount Holyoke
  • Vassar
  • Bryn Mawr
  • Oberlin
  • Grinnell
  • Pomona College

The Ivy League
Although these schools are among the oldest and most famous in the country, the Ivy League itself was not officially formed until the 1950s – as an athletic conference! Members of the Ivy League, all of which reside in the northeastern United States, are:

  • Harvard
  • Yale
  • Princeton
  • Brown
  • Dartmouth
  • Cornell
  • Columbia
  • University of Pennsylvania

Ivy League colleges stress undergraduate liberal arts education, but they also have noted grad and professional schools. Tuition at these private schools is among the highest in the country, and admission is generally highly competitive.

Generally there are a significant number of international students attending these colleges, since these colleges are well-known internationally – and also because the schools actively seek a diverse student body. Sometimes you’ll find the term “Ivy League” also applied, somewhat inaccurately, to any top-notch private liberal arts college. And despite the cachet of the term “Ivy League,” there are many other colleges and universities, both private and public, that are just as highly rated and as difficult to get into; Stanford being just one example.

Denominational or Religiously Affiliated Schools
There are a large number of colleges and universities in the United States that were formed by religious groups and organizations. Although they are not limited in admission to members of that religious group, they are administered by members of their religious faction and are often run in line with their religious precepts. Among well-known schools in this category are:

  • Notre Dame, Georgetown (Catholic)
  • Brandeis, Yeshiva (Jewish)
  • Brigham Young (Mormon)
  • Southern Methodist University (Methodist)
  • Earlham (Quaker)

Technical Institutes
These are schools specializing primarily in engineering and science, and particularly noted for their research and graduate programs. Most international students who attend these schools are admitted at the graduate degree level. The undergraduate colleges of these schools also offer a variety of liberal arts courses along with their technical subjects. Undergraduates admitted to these schools usually have especially strong backgrounds in math and sciences, as witnessed by grades and standardized test scores (e.g., SAT or GRE). Noted schools include:

  • MIT (the Massachusetts Institute of Technology)
  • Cal Poly (California Polytechnic Institute)
  • Georgia Tech (Georgia Institute of Technology)
  • WPI (Worcester Polytechnic Institute)