College 101: U.S. Colleges Explained

(No Ratings Yet)


Whether you’re a high school student looking to understand what college or university is all about, or you’re an international student looking to study abroad in the United States, American colleges can seem confusing. There are so many types of degrees, majors, and colleges to choose from. Plus, navigating course codes, credits, and financial aid can seem like you’re learning a whole new language. Just how does college work in the U.S. exactly? All the questions you have about college are answered here.


College 101: U.S. Colleges Explained

College is the next step of education after high school for most United States students. College is used interchangeably with the word university (more on that here). At United States colleges, there are several degree programs including associate degrees, bachelor’s degrees, master’s degrees and PhDs.



“University of the People student with backpack going to study”
Photo by Tim Gouw on Unsplash



How Does College Work?

We know that the U.S. college system can be a bit confusing at times. With so many types of schools, ways to earn credits, and financial aid options, it’s no wonder that potential students end up scratching their heads from college websites.


Here’s our all inclusive list of how college works in the U.S.



Degrees and Credits

1. How Many Credits Do I Need for a Bachelor’s Degree?


For a bachelor’s degree, you need to complete 120 credits. Colleges also may have specific education requirements such as 1 math course, 1 English course, and 1 art course. Finally, each major has stipulations about how many credits of each type of course you may need.



2. What Level of Education Do You Need?


To find out what level of education you need, all you need to do is a bit of research. You may be able to get away with a bachelor’s degree now, but to reach your full career potential, a higher degree may be required.



3. What Are General Education Requirements?


General education requirements are what is required from your college or university in order to graduate. They are usually basic courses and you may have the flexibility to choose what you want to take within those gen ed requirements.



4. Bachelor’s of Arts vs. Bachelor’s of Science


A bachelor’s of arts requires more courses from humanities and arts departments, and bachelor’s of science will require more courses from science and math departments. To determine which is the best degree option for you, look at what field you are interested in, and what is commonly accepted or preferred when you will enter the workforce.



What is Dual Credit?

Dual credit is an option for students in high school in the United States to earn college credit and high school credit simultaneously. This can either happen at a high school, or at a local community college.


How Many Dual Credits Should You Take?


Too many dual credits that don’t ultimately work towards your degree will be a waste of time. Be smart about which dual credit classes you decide to take. Taking dual credits will save you from paying for college classes later on, but you may have to take introductory classes in college anyways. Also, before you get too excited signing up for several dual credits, check what is the maximum number of credits you are allowed to transfer into your college.



What’s the Difference Between AP and Dual Enrollment?

Advanced placement (AP) classes are classes for high school students meant to give them college credit after passing a test. At the end of the course, a student can take the test and depending on their score, they can get college credit for the class. The score is the credit, not the class. Students can take the test without taking any classes, but they might not pass.


Dual enrollment, on the other hand, is when high school students take college classes on college campuses during their junior or senior year of high school, and they earn dual credit at their high school.



When Transfer Credits Don’t Transfer

It isn’t uncommon for transfer students to complain that they have lost credit after their transfer. This can be due to the course not being advanced enough, or attempting to transfer duplicate courses. Check out what courses will apply to your new school before you transfer, to avoid loss of time and money.



Transfer Credit Without Losing Credit

You should check out transfer policies before enrollment, and make sure you are able to transfer a majority of your credits. Some colleges are more transfer-friendly than others. For example, some have a cap on the amount of credits they will receive.



Common Course Codes That Transfer

An easy way to check if your credits will transfer is to look at the 3-letter prefix and the numbers. Generally, business (BUS) will transfer to business, and communication (COM) will transfer to communication credits. There is not much wiggle room.


Commonly used number codes are more likely to transfer, such as 101, 201, 301, 100, 200, 300, etc. For example, Psych 101 is likely to transfer, while Graphic Arts 293 might not.



How to Transfer Community College Credits to University

Send your transcript to your new major advisor and ask them which credits will transfer. Sometimes the credits will transfer, but your past classes won’t substitute future classes. This is important to keep in mind when budgeting your time and money after the transfer.



Paying for College

“Three University of the People students studying at a cafe”
Photo by Caleb Minear on Unsplash



Financial Aid Explained


The FAFSA, or Free Application for Federal Student Aid, is an application that all U.S. citizens and residents with a green card are eligible to apply for. The application includes questions regarding your income, and your guardians’ income(s), if you are a dependent. Students only receive student financial aid if they are deemed by the U.S. Department of Education to be in financial need. They will then determine whether to hand the student loans or grants. Grants are very difficult to obtain, and federal loans each have different interest levels. Students need to reapply for financial aid every year that they are in school.



The 529 Plan


The 529 plan allows you to pre-pay for college years early. This is often done by parents who want to lock in lower rates before their kids go to school.



Student Debt is a Killer


College sets you ahead in your life in many ways, but one of the ways it sets you far back is financially. The average student debt is $37,172. There are ways to avoid student debt though, or to be smart about paying it off. Don’t let the fear of student loan debt hold you back from going to college, but make smart financial choices and don’t take the loans lightly.



Things to Consider About Student Loans


Before you apply for a student loan, investigate ways to save on tuition so you can take out less loans. For example, maybe transfer credit is available. If you plan on working part time, you may be able to take out less loans and pay some of your tuition upfront as well.



Calculate your ROI


Before you choose a school or a degree program, look at the school and program’s return on investment. Look at starting salaries for majors you might choose, and if that brand name school is really worth the extra tuition.



College is Expensive, Here’s How to Save

College is expensive, but there are some ways to make is less so. Take full-time credits each semester, as taking part-time can make you ineligible for financial aid. Try not to switch majors as you’ll end up taking extra classes, and take advantage of alternative credit such as dual credits in high school and work-study opportunities.




Choosing a Major

To find out what you should major in, ask yourself the following questions:


1. What kind of lifestyle do you want?

2. What career paths interest you?

3. What experience and knowledge do you need to support your dreams after graduation?



Why Majors Don’t Matter


While majors can help you get certain specific knowledge, a major usually doesn’t matter too much for undergraduate studies. It is more important what you do with your time in college.



The STEM Majors


STEM combines all of its parts (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) into one discipline to create a well-rounded field of study. STEM is much different than majoring in just one of those departments and can be much more challenging as well, as it offers a new way to learn and think.


A STEM major (as opposed to majoring in STEM), is to major in one of those four disciplines of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Within each of these majors, there may be some overlap but not as much as majoring in STEM itself.



Highest Paying Majors


Across the board, the consistently highest-paying majors are in engineering (mechanical, industrial, materials, aerospace, systems, electrical, nuclear, chemical, computer, and petroleum). Other high-paying majors are in business and political science.



Most Common Majors


1. Accounting: Accountants aren’t just good at finance and math. They also must be highly organized and self-disciplined.


2. Liberal Arts Music: If you love music, why not get a degree in it? There are plenty of music careers where you can pursue your passion.


3. Marketing: Graduates with marketing degrees are in high demand, and this is a great area of business to enter.


4. Communications: This major is not just for those going into journalism, it can be the perfect major for you if you are considering a career of any kind.


5. English: English majors are excellent at writing, love literature and language and have a broad range of careers waiting for them at graduation.


Choosing a College

“Graduate reading a book in the library”
Photo by Jasmine Coro on Unsplash



Is This the Best Way for You to Get an Education?

Don’t just go to college because you think you should. Education comes in many forms, and college is only one of them. Do your research and find out if college is the best way to get you where you need to be.



What Every Dropout Should Know

Not going to college is a legitimate option, but know that you are taking a risk by dropping out of college. Remember that you can always go to college later in life, but it may be more difficult.



Should You Go to College?

This is a big question you should ask yourself before you enroll. Check out our full guide to find out if college is right for you.



How College Admission Works

Undergraduate college admissions are based on several factors: SAT scores, personal essays, high school grades/transcripts, and recommendation letters. Check deadlines far in advance to make sure you have enough time to take tests, ask for recommendation letters, and write your essays. Make sure to double check everything before you submit your application.



How Does College Accreditation Work?

What is Accreditation?


Accreditation of higher education institutions is done by a private organization to ensure that the school meets acceptable levels of education quality.



The Involvement of the Department of Education


There is a U.S. law that states that any educational institution receiving financial aid must meet certain education quality criteria. This can often be proved through accreditation.



How Colleges and Universities Get Accredited


Getting accredited is optional and may take 1-2 years to show eligibility. Schools may show eligibility by submitting information on faculty, class syllabi, financial viability, graduation and degree requirements, and sample student work.



The Consequences of Attending a Non-Accredited School


When a student attends a non-accredited college or university, they may be ineligible for student aid, may not have credits transferred, other universities may not recognize the degree for further education, and a non-accredited degree may not be taken seriously by employers post-graduation.



How to Find out if an Online School is Accredited


Online schools should have accreditation information posted on their website. From there, you can look into the accreditation organization.



Accreditation Red Flags


Red flags for schools include having a similar name and logo to another university, few graduation requirements, promises completion in an unusually short time, and automatic acceptance.



Types of Colleges: The Basics

“College campus”
Photo by Michael Marsh on Unsplash



Community College: Truth and Fiction


Check your facts. Common misconceptions about community colleges are that it is a stepping stone to university (it’s not!), your credits will definitely transfer, and that it will help you decide what to do next.



Don’t Waste Money on Community College


Community college isn’t guaranteed to save you money. But if you’re smart about it, you may be able to save big by attending a community college for general credits, then transferring to a large public school for your major. However, as some credits may not transfer, you may not be saving in the end.



Public, Private, and For-Profit Colleges


Public colleges are state funded and owned, while private colleges are funded by another organization, such as a religious institution. Some colleges are for-profit. This may mean higher tuition rates and sometimes credits may not transfer to other colleges.



Four-Year and Two-Year Colleges


Four-year colleges offer bachelor’s degrees and include liberal arts colleges and universities. Two-year colleges offer associate’s degrees and certificates and include community colleges, vocational, and technical schools.



Liberal Arts Colleges


Usually private, these colleges tend to focus on the arts and humanities, and are oftentimes smaller than universities.





Universities usually have a collection of smaller colleges and may offer graduate degree programs, and research programs as well.



Vocational, Technical, and Career Colleges


These kinds of colleges offer specialized training in a particular field and prepare students for entry into that field. Examples include healthcare management, medical assistance, food and beverage management, and office management.



Specialized Colleges


These are colleges that are for specific people or purposes and include:


  • Arts Colleges
  • Single-Sex Colleges
  • Religiously Affiliated Colleges
  • Specialized Mission Colleges


Your College Degree Options

  • Associates Degree: 2 years
  • Bachelor’s Degree: 4 years
  • Graduate Degree: 1-4+ years
  • Professional Degree: 3+ years
  • Joint Degrees: Getting a bachelor’s degree that goes straight into a graduate degree
  • Teacher Certification: 1 year


How Does Online College Work?

“Materials for online study on desk”
Photo by Dan Dimmock on Unsplash



What is Online College Like?


Online college is very similar to on-campus college. They both offer the same coursework, materials, assignments, tests and deadlines. The difference is that online students may watch video lectures instead of in-person lectures.



What Does an Online Classroom Look Like?


For a live classroom, students may use a platform where they log on and can listen live while other online students listen as well, and in-class students are in person. Online college platforms typically include a discussion section, lectures, grades, and groups sections.



Is Online College Hard?


Online college is the same as traditional college in terms of its coursework, assignments, exams, and deadlines. So the course content and requirements is the same level of difficulty. However, online students need to be much more self-motivated and accountable for their grades and participation.


If you are looking for a flexible, fully online, and accredited American university, check out our degree programs from University of the People (UoPeople). Not only is University of the People an accredited online school, but it is also tuition-free! Meaning you’ll get the most value for your education given that the only fees charged are for assessments to help the operation of UoPeople to continue. Degrees offered include associate’s bachelor’s and master’s degrees in fields of Computer Science, Business, Education, and Health Sciences.


Hopefully, we’ve cleared up any confusion there was about U.S. colleges. How does college work? Now you know!