Overview of the American College Landscape

Noodle data scientist Charles Wang gives us an in-depth look and review of the college landscape in the U.S.

College, graduate school, and various forms of professional certification are considered "postsecondary" education, according to the U.S. government. Generally, the term "college" refers to formal education taking place after high (secondary) school, but before graduate or professional (law, business, medical, engineering, etc.) school and culminating in associate's (two-year) degrees, bachelor's (four-year) degrees, or vocational certificates (anywhere from one to three years).

The Bureau of Labor Statisticsfinds that about two-thirds of Americans of the appropriate age are enrolled in college within a year of graduation from secondary school. By comparison, about 75% of Americans graduate secondary school. So overwhelmingly, Americans graduate high school with the expectation of going to some type of college.

But don't let these statistics mislead you. This is by no means an indication of readiness to complete collegiate work; only 58% of students entering four-year college complete it within six years. Many take even longer or leave with an associate's degree; many students simply drop out because of poor preparation.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, colleges in the U.S. are run by state governments (27.28%), private non-profits (25.26%), and private for-profits (46.5%). There are a few exceptions: the military's Service Academies for instance are run by the federal government through the military. Up to one-third of students transfer colleges for a variety of reasons, most commonly to move from a two-year institution to a four-year institution.

Below is a summary of the most common types of colleges in the U.S.:

Community colleges: Also referred to as "junior" colleges, these schools typically offer associate's degrees and some vocational degrees and certificates. Most are run by the state and practice open enrollment. Many students who enter community college do so with the intent of transferring to a four-year college. Reasons for doing so include limited financial means, since community colleges are much more affordable, and inadequate preparation during high school - some 60% of community college students take remedial classes. Community colleges are commonly used by recent immigrants as well, because most four-year colleges will not offer financial aid to people who are not yet permanent legal residents.

Career or technical colleges:These institutions are usually two-year vocational schools, with some four-year institutions as well. They offer associate's degrees in trades like automotive repair, carpentry, plumbing, construction, cosmetology, and cooking, as well as bachelor's degrees in areas considered professions, such as business, criminal justice, teaching, applied information technology, etc. Many of these are run by for-profit corporations; most are open-enrollment, like state-run community colleges. Although these schools collectively have a modest proportion of college enrollment, they make up almost half of postsecondary institutions because many are very small and specialized.

Liberal arts colleges: These are four-year colleges with a focus on the liberal arts and sciences. They tend to be smaller institutions with a limited post-graduate population. Most are run by private non-profits. Many are beneficiaries of the wealth of some of the extremely wealthy "robber barons" of the 19th century and bear the names of their sponsors: Colgate University, Scripps College, etc.

Research universities: Also four-year colleges, that often have substantial post-graduate populations, large endowments, and a strong commitment to research output. These are almost always run by private non-profit organizations with generous endowments or by state governments. Examples include the Ivy League schools and top state-run schools (UCLA, Rutgers, UVA, etc.). These schools are often the most famous and visible. Many have professional schools, hospitals, research labs, experimental primary and secondary schools, and other institutions attached.

Specialty schools:There are many highly specialized schools as well, such as art schools, conservatories, theological/seminary schools, pure business schools and pure engineering schools. There are also a couple maritime academies (for training for the merchant marine), service academies run directly by the military to train officers, senior military colleges run by private organizations but with a militaristic outlook, such as Norwich and Virginia Military Institute, and one college (Landmark College) that caters specifically to students with learning disabilities.

Special populations: Some colleges cater specifically to certain communities. In particular, there are HBCUs (Historically black colleges/universities) such as Morehouse College and Morgan State University. A number of tribal colleges for Native Americans exist as well, though these tend to be at the two-year/community college level rather than full colleges.

With vanishingly few exceptions, there is no question that college - or some level of postsecondary training or education - is a sound investment. Census data from 1980 to 2008 shows that entry-level earnings for a 25-year old college graduate dramatically overtakes the earnings of a high school graduate by about 49%. By mid-career (age 45), those with two years of college earn 29% more than their peers with no college education. And those with four years of college easily take home twice as much per year as the average high school graduate. Rates increase dramatically when you compare those with a postgraduate degree, who generally take home almost three times as much as high school graduates.

So the question these days for most hopeful college graduates isnt should I go to college, but rather, how can I afford to?

About the author: Charles Wang is a data scientist at Noodle. He finds writing a therapeutic accompaniment to the day-to-day of data nerdery.

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