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Types of Higher Education Institutions

Institutions identify themselves in various ways. Their names may indicate method of establishment, who is/was served, 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, nonprofit university such as Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The following are terms associated with higher education institutions. There are many nuances and exceptions to these definitions. The following 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 these 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 nongovernmental accrediting agencies and federal and state approval agencies. There are both institutional and program-specific accrediting agencies. The U.S. Department of Education provides an overview, history, and list of agencies. Websites of accrediting bodies list accredited institutions.


Typically, an institution that focuses on four-year baccalaureate degrees, but sometimes also confers associate, 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 associate degrees, vocational, technical, and professional training. The first of the type was Joliet Junior College (Ill.), a public institution established in 1901. Also, there are military junior colleges

Division I, II or III

Refers to the National College Athletic Association’s 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, the Big Ten and the Ivy League.

For-Profit Institution

This is an institution created privately by businesses and companies. The earned revenue is returned to noneducational expenses and investors. More information can be found at

Hispanic-Serving Institution

This name is a U.S. Depart­ment of Education designation afforded by application. An institution must have at least 25 percent Hispanic students to be considered. As of 2018, there were 411 HSIs.

Historically Black Colleges and Universities

These 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 U.S. in the early and mid-1800s. Some were established as professional schools, such as teachers’ colleges. Additionally, HBCUs were established through the Morrill Act of 1862 and the Second Morrill Act of 1890. The oldest HBCU is Cheyney University of Pennsylvania, established in 1837. In 2020, there were 107 HBCUs in the U.S.

Institutes and Academies

These are institutions that focus on a specific topic, research area or discipline. Examples in the arts include the Maryland Institute and College of Art, the Pratt Institute 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 U.S. 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:

• Agricultural and Mechan­ical or A&M

• Agricultural and Technical or A&T

• Polytechnic or Tech

• Many but not all state universities are land-grant institutions

• Institutions

Not all institutions using these names are land-grant institutions, including Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, 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

This is 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 (Ind.).

Military School

An institution that trains officers for the U.S. 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 10. Military junior colleges are two-year institutions training commissioned officers for the U.S. Army Reserve; there are four.

Nonprofit Institution

A U.S. Internal Revenue Service–designated institution, which is 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 nonprofit 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 3,947 higher education institutions, 3,259 were nonprofit institutions in 2019.


(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 nonresidential.

Normal School and Teachers’ 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 U.S., normal schools were first established in the early and mid-1800s. The second U.S. normal school, established in 1839, still exists today as Framingham State University (Mass.). Many normal schools changed their names to teachers’ colleges in the early 20th century. The word “teachers’” 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 teachers’ colleges.

Private (also “Independent”) Institution

An institution operating independently from the state government. Many, but not all, are nonprofit 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, 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 3,947 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 U.S. was Andover Theological Seminary (Mass.), founded in 1807 (now Andover Newton Seminary at Yale Divinity School).

Tribal Colleges and Universities

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 (Ariz.), was established in 1968. Currently, there are 37 TCUs.


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 nonbinary 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 teachers’ 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 U.S. Department of Education and must meet specific requirements for the designation.

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 U.S. at large. Due to space constraints, identifiers related to various ranking agencies such as “military-friendly,” “LGBTQIA-friendly,” etc. are not included

Source: excerpted from an article by Kathy Johnson Bowles for


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