With so many post-secondary options, you may not know where to start. A great first step is to research the different types of institutions out there and the pros and cons of each. For example, is a public university always cheaper than a private one, and if so, why? Can I save money by attending a community college first? The following page looks at today’s most common institutional options, as well as the full impact of online learning on this academic ecosystem.

Community Colleges

Students may want to choose a community college to gain a skill set that may be needed in the area where they live or that has universal application, such as heating and air-conditioning or computer science. Often, business professionals have an interest in having well-educated graduates in their workforce and may support various programs at a community college or provide opportunities for internships or externships. Typically, there are three types of educational programs that can be completed at a community college:

  • Diploma: These are often six to nine months in length and can provide specific hands-on learning, such as in small engine repair.
  • Certificate: This is a longer form of learning, often anywhere from nine to 18 months, giving students a larger knowledge base and a relevant skill set, such as in medical assisting or phlebotomy.
  • Associate: Associate degree programs usually can be completed in as little as two years, but can be obtained more quickly or slowly depending on the needs of the student. Often, these credits can be transferred over to a university program particularly when a 2+2 agreement is in effect. Degrees can be found in business, general education, nursing and many others fields.

While vocational training is often an earmark of a community college education, some students use its foundational courses to transfer to a four-year program. This brings the term “junior college” into play, which now is nearly synonymous with “community college.” However, junior colleges typically offer more general education coursework and have programs oriented toward university transfer. Community colleges, on the other hand, can have both a vo-tech and junior college role, but have a reach that goes far beyond a basic two years. Most community colleges offer extended learning through a department of continuing education, giving adults of all ages the opportunity to learn more about a hobby or specialty area, and providing learning resources to the entire community.

Students looking for a community college education have many options, and can even find coursework and programs offered online. The American Association of Community Colleges reports there are 1,132 community colleges available in the U.S., including 986 that are public, 115 that are private and 31 that are tribal. The number of students turning to community colleges for an education has grown, too. In 2000, approximately 5.5. million degree-seeking students were enrolled in these schools, compared to 8 million by the 2010-11 school year.

Public Colleges and Universities

Public colleges and universities may be one of the most affordable ways to work toward a full undergraduate or graduate degree. It is true that they provide opportunities to complete a bachelor’s or master’s degree, but, compared to a community college, have a wider range of degrees and program choices, elective options, staff and resources due to size. Their funding comes through state and local governments, allowing costs to be kept lower than at private colleges, particularly for in-state students.

Students can also turn to these public institutions to find new and niche programs such as post-baccalaureate certificates, intended for students who want more learning after a bachelor’s degree but aren’t ready to tackle graduate education. They can also find graduate certificates, which allow them to complete a program that is typically about 15 credits in length and avoid committing to a full master’s degree. Often certificate credits like these can be transferred over to a full degree at a later time.

Universities often have even more resources than public colleges, providing choices in doctorate-level work, as well as fellowships and residences. Universities are often mid- to large-sized and have many options outside of the classwork to expand perspectives, involvement and interests. Students may find clubs and organizations to join, interesting people to meet and meaningful programs to become involved in. Students who want to keep the financial impact of their college tuition low, but who love the diverse learning opportunities that come with a mid- to large-sized school may want to opt for a public institution.

Private Colleges and Universities (Not-for-Profit)

Private not-for-profit colleges mainly rely on tuition, fees and private donations to generate their funding. Because of this, they can be more expensive than a public institution. Their campuses and enrollment numbers are usually much smaller than at a public school, making a private school a great choice for students who want to get to know others students and professors well, and who like the idea of a smaller educational setting.

Private colleges can also meet the specific needs of students in ways that public schools often cannot. For example, students looking for a school founded on a specific religious faith can find institutions built around Baptist, Catholic, Jewish and other faith-based traditions. Often, these schools require students to complete several religious-based classes as part of their program or create a campus culture that supports the religious faith. Students can also turn to private schools to find single-sex institutions, such as Wellesley College in Massachusetts, which is for women only, or to pursue subject specific programs, such as can be found through an art institute. Students looking for a very specific type of education, a small school size or a combination of both, may find a private not-for-profit school to be a good choice.

Private For-Profit Colleges and Universities

Private for-profit schools can help students who want to complete a bachelor’s or master’s degree (or even PhD or EdD!) with a career-training focus do so through flexible learning on-campus or online. These institutions were many of the first to integrate online learning and make education available on a national platform.

For-profit institutions are businesses, but they can provide a broad range of options for students via on-campus or online learning. Additionally, they may boast many locations within a state or across the country to make transferring credits between programs easy and worry-free. The universality and access that can come through a for-profit school can give students flexibility and peace of mind when it comes to completing a program, something that may be more difficult to feel at a traditional college.

The Growth of Online Learning

Online learning began mostly as an experiment in instructional delivery as far back as the mid-1990s. In fact, community colleges and other institutions once offered the likes of a “College Beyond Walls” that made use of telecourses (some of which may still be available) that were delivered using a television.

However, once distance learning took root through use of computers, it has been on an upward trajectory ever since, growing from integration at for-profit schools to inclusion at public and private colleges and universities. Student interest has grown, too. As far back as the fall of 2002, more than 1.6 million students took at least one course online, with more than one-third of these students, approximately 578,000, taking all of their courses online, according to the Sloan Consortium. Fast-forward more than 10 years and those numbers have increased significantly. By 2013, 7.1 million students were taking at least one college course online.

How Online Colleges Work

College education now provides students with diverse learning modes, which extend beyond just the two choices of campus-based or online. Students can also find the hybrid format that allows them to choose online or campus-based courses, or a combination of both, and blended learning that makes use of both traditional and online education within a single course, expanding the framework of instruction and delivery. Students need to investigate which types of distance-learning options are available to them and should be able to find preferences to suit their individual needs. Students with careers, families or other commitments may find online learning a rewarding alternative to campus-based learning due to its flexibility.

Synchronous (Real-Time)

Online programs can use synchronous learning that requires students to be online at specific times to hear lectures, complete quizzes, participate in discussions or watch videos. Synchronous learning means that all students in a program will be online at the same time, allowing them to feel more involved with other students and to create a feeling more representative of a traditional classroom. Students can also have their questions or comments responded to immediately, also better duplicating the feeling of a traditional classroom. Tech tools that might be used in synchronous learning include text chat, videoconferencing and audio-streaming.

Asynchronous (Self-Paced)

Students involved in asynchronous learning have a given timeframe in which to complete their assignments and other projects, often within a week for specific assignments or longer, but that is usually detailed on the syllabus given at the start of the course. Students may be required to post reflections on a discussion board and to comment on other students’ posts. They may be given team projects to work on together, which may require collaboration by e-mail or text. Online learning platforms such as Blackboard, Captivate or E-College might be used. Asynchronous learning may be best for students who need ultimate flexibility to complete their assignments, or who require a unique schedule to be able to progress through course materials on their own.