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How to Make a US College List: What kind of institution will help me thrive?

Now that you’ve learned a bit about the different regions of the US (and can hopefully provide your own answer to the eternal “East Coast vs. West Coast” debate!), it’s time to dive into the different types of higher education institutions.

From liberal arts colleges to research universities, public to private, and more, there are no shortage of options. For many international students, these terms can be unfamiliar.

Understanding the different categories of colleges and universities can go a long way in helping develop a college list that best fits you and your future goals.

Private vs. Public

While many international students may not immediately have a preference, knowing whether a college is private or public may allow you to understand a bit more about the school.

As the name suggests, private colleges are those that are privately funded by tuition, fees, and other private sources of funding such as an endowment.

Examples: Brown University, Santa Clara University, New York University, USC, Oberlin College

Public colleges and universities are funded by local and state governments. Often referred to as “state schools,” many of these colleges prioritize applicants from within the state. Although tuition is often cheaper for in-state students, for those applying internationally or out of state, public and private universities are often comparable in cost.

Examples: UT Austin, UC Berkeley, University of Virginia, UNC Chapel Hill

Liberal Arts College vs. Research University

The next question that students should consider is what size and structure will work best for your learning style, personality and goals. While many colleges and universities offer a combination of the qualities and opportunities discussed here, they can broadly be divided into these two categories.

Liberal arts colleges offer a range of courses in the liberal arts (think anything from English literature to math to economics) and emphasize the importance of a broad-based education.

The majority of liberal arts colleges are private and often have a smaller student population. Liberal arts colleges focus on undergraduate education and tend to have smaller classes and lower student to faculty ratios, which often makes professors more accessible to undergraduates. Students who attend a liberal arts college usually graduate with a bachelor of arts degree (BA) and are prepared for a wide array of careers.

Examples: Williams, Pomona, Bowdoin, Middlebury, Barnard, Oberlin

Universities (often referred to as “research universities”) are usually much larger and offer more majors and programs than a liberal arts college, including graduate and professional schools for fields such as law and business.

Within a university, there are usually many smaller colleges (College of Arts & Sciences or College of Engineering, for example). With the wider array of programs comes the availability of more specific majors. So while a liberal arts college would generally just offer biology as a major, a university might offer marine biology, biochemistry, or molecular biology. Universities also offer more pre-professional degrees for undergraduates, whether it’s business, engineering or architecture.

Larger universities often have a focus on research, as well as a large amount of resources available for undergraduates to perform their own research across disciplines. With a larger student population, undergraduates often spend more time in lecture classes, rather than smaller seminars.

Examples: University of Pennsylvania, Cornell University, UCLA, University of Michigan, Emory University

Fine arts colleges and conservatories

While many colleges and universities offer the opportunity to study performance or visual arts, a select group of schools focuses exclusively on providing students with professional training in the arts. Whether it’s studying illustration at RISD, jazz composition at Berklee, or fashion design at Pratt, these schools help students jumpstart their careers in the arts.

Examples: RISD, Berklee College of Music, Pratt, NYU Tisch, Savannah College of Art and Design, The New School


HBCU stands for Historically Black Colleges and Universities. HBCUs were founded on the principle that all students deserve equal access to education, and offer a unique environment that highlights Black history and culture. They have become increasingly diverse over time, particularly with more and more international students applying. From Spelman, one of the nation’s leading liberal arts colleges for women, to Howard University, a top research university with a leading medical and law school, HBCUs offer a wide array of academic opportunities.

Examples: Howard University, Spelman College, Morehouse College, Tuskegee University, Florida A&M

Religiously affiliated

Historically speaking, many U.S. colleges have started with a religious affiliation. However, only certain schools have carried that religious affiliation forward to campus today. Many religiously affiliated institutions may require students take a theology course, for example, that introduces them to different perspectives on religion. However, each school differs in many ways. Although Georgetown and Notre Dame are both Jesuit schools, 40 percent of Georgetown students are Catholic compared to 80 percent at Notre Dame.

If you’re interested in attending a school with a strong tradition in a certain religion, talk to your counselor about the different options available.

Examples: Notre Dame, Brandeis University, Pepperdine, Loyola Marymount University, Brigham Young University


When making your college list, make sure to check for any of these terms. They can be great clues to help you understand what academic and student life there will be like, and they offer a good starting point for asking more specific questions about the resources and opportunities offered there!