New to the American College System
Are you and your family new to the American college system? Are you the first person in your family to apply to a college in the United States? Did you recently move to the US, and you would like to attend college here? The goal of this article is to help you understand how our higher education system is organized. Additional information is also available in several articles on this website.
Overview“College admission” in the US refers to the process of applying to be accepted into institutions of higher education. At Fairview, the counselors assist students with the process of deciding where to apply to college through career interest surveys and seminars that help guide academic planning and goal setting. Most of the activity directed towards the actual college application takes place during the junior and senior years. The US college application process can be very simple for some colleges, or it can take considerable time and planning, with multiple steps to be completed before the deadline dates. Some colleges have their own separate application form, and others use the Common Application that is filled out once and then can be sent to any college that is part of this program. Unlike many European universities, most US institutions admit students to the entire college and not to a particular department or major field of study. However, some specialized undergraduate programs such as architecture, nursing and engineering may require a separate application. Applying to a two-year community college is much easier than to a four-year college, as community colleges usually require a minimum amount of personal information and just a high school transcript or General Education Degree (GED). Millions of high school students in the US apply to college each year. The number of students enrolled in college is expected to reach approximately 23 million students in 2020. About a quarter of high school seniors in the US apply to seven or more schools, paying an average of $40 per application. Fairview students in the class of 2014 who applied to colleges submitted applications to an average of five different colleges per student.
College Types and Degrees
- College vs. University:
The terms college and university are generally used interchangeably to describe institutions with at least four years of higher education. However, a college is often thought of as a four-year educational institution that only offers bachelor’s degrees, whereas a university generally offers bachelors, masters, and Ph.D. degrees. There are over 2500 four-year colleges and universities in the United States.
- Community College vs. Junior College:
Both community and junior colleges are the same type of two-year higher education institutions offering associate degrees. “Junior” college was the term commonly used through the 1970s, but the term “community” college is more common today. City colleges and military junior colleges also fall into this category. There are over 1,500 two-year colleges in the United States. Typically, two-year colleges have:
- An open admission policy that is less rigorous than a four-year college,
- Only require a high-school transcript or General Education Degree (GED),
- The core or basic subject credits earned at a two-year college usually will transfer to a four-year college, and
- The tuition per semester is less expensive than at four-year colleges.
- Liberal Arts College:
An undergraduate institution that is usually smaller in size (i.e., approx. <5,000 students) with student-to-professor ratios of approximately 10-20 students per professor. Most liberal arts colleges are private colleges (see Public vs. Private Colleges below). A liberal arts college offers traditional teaching in a wide variety of the humanities and sciences, rather than a specific vocational, technical or professional major. Liberal arts colleges award bachelor’s degrees following a four-year course of study, and very few offer post-graduate programs for masters or Ph.D degrees.
- Public vs. Private Colleges:
Public colleges and universities are largely supported by state funds and are often less expensive to attend if the student lives in the same state (see Tuition below). Private institutions are supported by tuition and donations from alumni and friends of the college (i.e., endowments). Usually, the tuition for private colleges is more expensive than public colleges, but private colleges may offer more scholarships.
- Associate vs. Bachelor Degree:
An associate degree is an undergraduate degree awarded upon completion of a course of study generally lasting two years. Associate degrees are usually obtained at community colleges, junior colleges and technical colleges but may also be earned at a four-year college. Examples of careers that require an associate degree include lab technician, teacher in early-childhood programs, computer technician, draftsman, radiation therapist, paralegal and machinist. Bachelor degrees are obtained at four-year colleges and universities and are earned for an undergraduate course of study that generally requires three to five years of study (depending on institution and field of study).
- Full-time vs. Part-time Enrollment:
Students who commit to at least 12 hours (typically 4 classes) of weekly classroom attendance are considered full-time students; those who take less than 12 hours/week (e.g., 1-3 classes) are considered part-time students. Each college has its own specific definition of full-time and part-time status. Many students attend college part-time while working in a job to support themselves.
- College vs. University:
Cost of CollegeTuition and fees vary widely. Here is a sample of local college tuition and fees for a full-time student (i.e., a student taking 4 classes) for one semester. Part-time college students would pay a smaller amount for semester tuition.
College Type of Institution Approx. Resident Tuition & Fees per Semester
Front Range Community College 2-year public community college $2,200 Metropolitan State University of Denver (formerly Metro College) 4-year public liberal arts college $2,870 CSU Fort Collins 4-year public university $4,940 CU Boulder 4-year public university $5,370 Colorado School of Mines 4-year public university and engineering college $8,240 University of Denver 4-year private university $13,640
Where to Learn MoreFairview offers a wide range of helpful opportunities for students and families to learn about college.
- CCC – look in detail at the Counseling/Career Center web site and talk with CCC staff
- College Rep Visits - each year, more than 200 college representatives from the US and Canada visit FHS during the school day to give presentations, meet students and answer questions.
- FHS Alumni - ask your counselor for names of former Fairview students who have gone through the application process and are now in college.