Struggling With “College Fit?” Knowing A School’s Mission Can Help

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There’s lots of talk about “college fit” these days (the idea that students do better at schools that are best in tune with their academic, philosophical and personal needs), but sometimes a lot of questions around college fit can be answered by asking a seemingly simple question:

What IS college? And what’s the difference between community colleges, colleges and universities?

The answers might seem basic and confounding at the same time. Taking the time to get to know the difference between different schools, including their affiliations, missions and more can help students make subtle, and often important, decisions in choosing the school that fits them best.

To be fair, there is no official distinction between colleges and universities. Both types of institutions can be public or private. Colleges tend to be smaller and typically offer only associate’s (2-year) or bachelor’s (4-year) degrees. Universities are usually larger and offer a broader array of degree options, including graduate degrees. However, some colleges offer graduate degrees while some universities do not. Just to make things more confusing, some institutions offering multiple graduate degrees maintain the “college” designation because of long-standing tradition (Dartmouth College, for example).

One good way to understand what makes a school tick, and how it might best serve a student, is to understand the schoo’s mission. The mission might not be the first think students consider when deciding on a college or university, but an institution’s educational mission impacts a school’s size, cost of tuition, campus climate and more. In short, it can influence the entire student experience.

Here are some categories of schools, their general mission types and what to expect when attending:

Community colleges

Community colleges are usually publicly-funded, two-year institutions with mission statements reflecting their service to the needs of the surrounding region. As a result, student access is important to community colleges, which welcome all students and offer low-cost tuition. While community college students can graduate with a technical or vocational associate’s degrees, many students use the two years of community college as a starting point before transferring to a four-year institution to complete a bachelor’s degree. Because of that, most community colleges have “articulation agreements” with colleges and universities that guarantee a student’s community college coursework will be accepted for credit at the four-year institution.

Major research universities

Large institutions (either private or public) where research comes first are usually called “universities.” As a result of the interest in research, these schools often have a portion of their faculty members who are purely “research faculty,” meaning that they teach minimally (and often only to advanced graduate students) if at all. Their work is focused on the generation of new knowledge, often in conjunction with lucrative grants from external sources.

Putting research first doesn’t mean undergraduates are left at a disadvantage, though. Large institutions may have larger classes, but typically break into small discussion groups to help personalize learning. Academic departments will work closely to reach out to their undergraduate students and communities form in residence halls and through campus clubs to create a breadth of opportunities to students.

Liberal arts colleges

Often promoted as an alternative to large research universities, liberal arts colleges are usually private institutions that focus on a more individualized approach to learning and building relationships in smaller-sized classes. As a result of this focus on the personal experience, these schools tend to prioritize teaching over research. Students are likely to find smaller classes taught by full-time faculty and not graduate assistants.

The focus away from research doesn’t mean that faculty at these schools are any less well-qualified than those at larger institutions. Rather, it presents more of a philosophical reflection of the “teaching vs. research” divide between the two types of schools.

Religiously-affiliated institutions

As the name would suggest, these institutions (virtually all privately-held) emphasize faith development in addition to educational achievement. These types of institutions range from small Bible colleges to nationally known Jesuit institutions like Georgetown University. For those students looking for an education that provides both academic and spiritual development, these types of colleges and universities offer an experience often specifically tailored to their religion.


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