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When you say "university," a lot of people picture old stone buildings covered with ivy--maybe even gargoyles! And it's true that there's a lot of history behind them: the country's first private university was Harvard, founded in 1636, and the first public university was University of North Carolina, chartered in 1789. But what exactly are America's universities all about today?
In such a diverse country as the United States, higher education has grown into an equally diverse group of institution types in terms of size, location, age, mandate and affiliation. Universities that offer 4-year undergraduate (and often graduate) programs can be called "university" or "college," be Christian, Catholic, Jewish, women's, historically black, liberal arts-focused, private or public. And there are many possible combinations of the above (Christian and liberal arts; women's and Catholic and private, public and historically black, etc.). Most public universities (which range in size from 1,000 to over 52,000 students) are state universities founded and operated by state government bodies; private universities rely on endowments, gifts, student tuition and existing capital for their financing. Universities can be single-facility or, in the case of the state university systems, have multiple campuses (sometimes over 20!) throughout a state. They can found in big cities, small remote communities and everywhere in between.
Regardless of type, universities are usually divided according to academic field into Colleges or Schools: for example a university might have a College of Arts, College of Science, College of Engineering, etc. Sometimes within a College or School you will find individual departments. For instance, in a College or School of Science you might find departments of biology, chemistry, geography, math and statistics, earth & planetary science, etc., and while there are some universities that focus more on specific fields of study, most US universities offer a wide array of degree programs in a range of academic fields: something for everyone of every interest, talent and goal!
About 60% of students pursuing post-secondary education in the US go to university and 4-year colleges. This translates into about 11 million students, with about 8.5 million undergrads. In recent years, universities have seen continuing growth in enrollment, with particularly large increases among women (approximately 60% of university students are women). This is a fairly general statement, since access and affordability are key issues in terms of who goes to university and which type they go to. Public universities, for instance, believe in making higher education accessible to as many Americans a s possible and are less expensive than private universities. The student body at most universities in therefore made up of American students of every ethnic and economic background, as well as international students from around the world.
What will university give you? Depending on the program, American universities offer 4-year bachelor's degrees as well as 2-year associate's degrees and shorter diplomas and certificates. Some disciplines also have the option of taking combined degrees, in which you graduate with two degrees in 5 years. Within degrees, students can take a major, double major, major and minor or honors options, which means students can tailor their degree according to their interests and skills. University programs tend to be more academically-oriented and theoretical -- knowledge for knowledge's sake -- than the more career-oriented community colleges. Programs at university are not necessarily focused on preparing you for a specific job or career (although some do); rather, many university programs provide the kind of broad-based exploratory education that can be applied to a wide variety of potential careers or lead you to graduate school. But that doesn't mean it's all boring lecture. Today's universities work hard to make your education relevant and exciting through co-op options, international exchanges, field schools, and other kinds of participatory learning. Check out our program-specific pages to learn more about what you can expect from the different fields of study at American universities.
Universities are part of an old tradition, yes: the Guinness Book of World Records recognizes the University of al-Karaouine in Morocco, founded in 859, as the world's oldest continuously-operating degree-granting university. However, today's universities are also dynamic institutions that adapt to meet the needs of the local and global society they serve. Part of their uniqueness lies in their combination of high quality and comprehensive academics with high-powered research. Some universities receive millions upon millions of dollars in research funding. America's 21st-century universities contribute not just educated students, but innovative research and important discoveries to the world. What else do you get from university? The chance to start a new personal adventure! You can go to a university down the street or across the nation; you can live at home or stay in residence. University inevitably helps you grow as a person.
So how will you decide? Don't let hype and reputation alone sway you. First you have to decide what you're interested in, then you have to find a university that offers it. Or, if you're undecided, take a look through a university's online course calendar to get some ideas of what's out there. You'll be surprised at some of the course offerings at today's universities! Other factors, such as scholarships, tuition costs, distance from home etc., may also be part of your decision. Schools in the USA's database of American universities can help get you started. Once you've spotted a program or university that seems to suit your interest, check out their website. The online calendar, departmental websites and Registrar's or Admissions Office sites will give you a wealth of information. Feel free to call or even go visit--don't be shy. This is your education! So take the time to explore the rest of our section on universities in the USA for even more information to help you find the right university for you.
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