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College 101

What the Heck is Out There?
Article Type: Quick and Dirty

Feels like a good time for another Top 10 list…

Top 10 Things That Might be Out There

  1. A werewolf
  2. That tree that’s been there for over100 years
  3. The boogie man (or woman)
  4. Space
  5. Justin Bieber
  6. Your creepy Uncle Jonah
  7. Batman
  8. A pack of rabid squirrels
  9. The great unknown
  10. The slightly less great known

Yeah, okay… but, how about other than what’s outside your bedroom window?

We’re talking colleges.

Public University. Private Liberal Arts School. Institute of Technology. Ivy League. Head spinning yet

You may have heard a lot of these words bandied about. There are loads of misconceptions out there as to the similarities and differences between them. But lucky for you, we’re here to shed a little light on the darkroom of your mind.

"You’ve got some things… developing in there."


Even if you feel like you have it all figured out, it can’t hurt to review the basics. Here’s a Quick & Dirty rundown of the types of schools that could someday appear on your application list:

Colleges and Universities

A college is just a less-fancy name for a university, right? Like… the movie could have just as easily been called Monsters College, yeah?

Well…sort of. But not. The exact definitions have been blurred throughout history, but there are a few differences that generally hold true.

First of all, keep in mind that the word “college” has come to be a synonym for just about any institution that offers post-high school education. With the possible exception of what you learned staying at Aunt Norma’s beach house the summer after graduation.

But fine, we’ll let them use the name. More specifically, though, a college is an institution that offers four-year degrees in the Arts and Sciences (awarding a B.A. or a B.S.) Colleges may offer graduate degrees but, if they do, the areas of study are usually more limited. Like…you shouldn’t expect to get your graduate degree in “math” or “words” or “interesting stuff.” Although some will try…

A university, on the other hand, tends to be larger than a college (not that size is everything), and may be made up of specific, smaller colleges, each focusing on a different subject area. It’s like the strip mall of colleges.

For example, you might attend Cornell University, but earn a Bachelor’s in their College of Arts and Science. Universities also tend to offer a wider variety of graduate and postgraduate degrees (Master’s and Doctoral degrees). So if being in one place for the next 14 years sounds appealing to you, a university is probably the way to go. (Your other option is to unsuccessfully pull off a major bank heist.)

"At least they got your good side."


There are always exceptions, but in general colleges tend to be smaller and more focused on the liberal arts, while universities are usually larger and more research-based.

Also, if you are going for name recognition, people are more likely to have heard of universities than colleges. But… you may want to move past the name recognition thing. There are more important things in life than wearing a particular shoe, for example, just because it says “Nike” on the tongue.

Public and Private

Until today, the difference between public and private has had to do with your internet settings. But now you’ve got more important things to worry about than convincing your parents you only use the web for research.

The major difference between public and private colleges and universities involves… money, honey.

Here are the top 10 benefits of attending a private as opposed to public school:

Top 10 Benefits of Attending a Private School

  1. You don’t have to be shy about including that “III” after your name
  2. Free ivy
  3. 24 karat gold leaf textbooks
  4. Professors all have English accents
  5. Yacht club > Scrabble club
  6. Even the janitors wear ties
  7. Gate to keep out the riff-raff
  8. Mascots are classy and dignified, even when they’re something ridiculous like a unicorn
  9. It’s right across the street from a Ben & Jerry’s
  10. Extra leg room

Public schools are state-funded, which helps keep tuition lower. In fact, if you are accepted into a public university in your state, you will normally pay significantly less than your classmates from out of state. Ha… serves those foreigners right.

How much less? As an example, the University of California system estimates that non-residents pay an average of nearly $23,000 more a year than residents. Let’s hope those out-of-towners don’t sign up for an economics course right out of the gate.

Private schools, on the other hand, are entirely funded by tuition, endowments and alumni donations, which generally means… you’ll want to be stacked with Benjamins. Some of the most expensive schools in the nation, like Sarah Lawrence, Columbia and Vanderbilt, have sticker prices that start in the mid-40’s per year. But who knows? Maybe you have really excellent haggling skills.

Don’t despair. Not all private schools are that expensive, and the reality is that schools with higher tuitions are often able to give more financial aid. Which means you shouldn’t necessarily rule out a school just ‘cause it’s a little on the ritzy end. Their “hand-out” could be your “way-in.”

Liberal Arts Schools

If you have conservative leanings… stay calm. Put down the assault rifle, and back away from the Bible. We’re talking about a different kind of “liberal.”

The term Liberal Arts originally referred to the areas of study that any “free man” should have access to (liberal coming from the Latin for “pertaining to freedom”). BUT… we have come a long way, and the term now (usually) refers to smaller, four-year schools that emphasize a general foundation of education before a student declares a major.

"The majestic water buffalo – where buffalo wings come from."


Are we breathing better now, Young Republicans?

These schools will likely have a series of core educational requirements every student must take to earn their degree (think Composition, Biology 101, Philosophy, etc.), as well as more specialized courses once you have declared a major (think Composition in Blue Ink, Biology of the Water Buffalo, Philosophy Cosmetics, etc.)

Liberal Arts schools are also big on faculty interaction with students. Not the kind that professors sometimes get 5-10 for… the slightly less friendly kind.

The Ivy League

Ah, the Ivy League. These are the hallowed halls of education where the nation’s movers and shakers are educated. Students who attend these universities were born in a suit and tie. Their first meal? Mashed caviar.

True? Well… kind of. Minus the caviar. The Ivy League is a group of eight schools that originally got together so that their football games could be standardized (Harvard used to have a rule that a kick was good if the kicker could rattle off all of the elements from the Periodic Table before the ball passed the uprights), but they evolved into some of the most selective and academically-challenging colleges and universities in the nation.

The eight schools which make up the League of Extraordinary Colleges are: Harvard University, Yale University, Princeton University, the University of Pennsylvania, Cornell University, Brown University, Dartmouth College, and Columbia University.

In the case of alien invasion, these eight schools have the ability to merge and form a giant 18-wheeled killing machine. So far, they have not had to take such action. Thank goodness.

But are these schools…worth the hype? Here’s a vague answer: maybe.

You can be certain you will be challenged academically, get a stellar education, have unparalleled networking possibilities, an impressive name on your degree and something to lord over your younger siblings for all eternity – if you meet the school’s requirements. But if the school doesn’t meet your requirements, look elsewhere. There are plenty of other schools of fish in the sea.

Technical Schools

To sort this out, Shmoop actually had to graduate from the Polytechnic Technical Institute of Technology. It’s a prestigious program that offers degrees in figuring out what the heck is out there in terms of technical education.

Technically (you knew that was coming), the term “Technical School” is a catch-all for any school that trains for a particular career having to do with the Sciences, Math, Engineering or Technology. If you’re into numbers, chemicals or pulleys, we’re probably lookin’ at you.

"Here’s a freebie. The next one’ll cost ya."


The level (and quality) of education in these schools varies, so be sure to do your research. If there’s a wild-eyed, crazy cartoon rabbit on the front of the building claiming, “I love maths!”… maybe steer clear.

Religious Schools and Religious Affiliations

The history of the United States is pretty intertwined with the history of religion, and we can thank churches for founding many of our colleges and universities. In fact, why not take a moment now and write a quick “thank you” card. Just address it to “churches.” They’ll get it.

However, just because your college has “St” in the name, it’s not necessarily a foregone conclusion that you’re going to be eating communion wafers for every breakfast.

Some of the best schools in the nation like Kenyon, Boston College, and Notre Dame are religiously-tied, but students may not feel the influences unless they specifically seek them out. So… you can pay and not pray. If you’d like to look at it that way.

On the other end of the spectrum are religious schools such as Seattle Pacific University, Wheaton College, and Taylor University… which absolutely define their missions through religious tradition. You’d better be a big God fan if applying to one of these babies.

Art Schools

Knowledge is beauty, but beauty is knowledge. You are more interested in matters of the soul than matters of the mind. Also, your parents may or may not have been hippies.

Whatever the reasons, being creative is your thang. Art schools, which range from private, for-profit schools to some of the most well-respected colleges and universities in the nation, could be just what you need to… paint your wagon.

Regardless of your art addiction – music, design, drama, film, visual arts, or some abstract combination of any or all of the above – there is a school or program that caters to it. Go ahead… feed the beast.

Some schools, like the New York Institute of Photography or New Mexico’s Institute of American Indian Arts, will focus on a specific genre or medium in the art world. Others, like the Savannah College of Art and Design, have a huge range of areas of study (SCAD offers 42 different Art-related majors).

Finally, there are loads of colleges and universities that may not focus exclusively on Art, but have very well-respected Art programs within their schools, like the University of Michigan’s School of Art and Design, and the University of Florida’s College of Fine Arts. Definitely consider the latter if you’re passionate about painting portraits of gators. They’ve got their share of oversized reptiles down there in the ol’ Sunshine State.

"This guy’s just here for Spring Break."


Don’t stress, Shmoopers. It’s a lot to process, but we’re here to help guide you through this all-important decision. In the meantime, if you ever need a confidence boost, check this out.

Is anyone else hearing the Rocky theme right now, or is that just us?

If you want to learn more about Art Schools, check out applying to Art Schools.

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