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All About Four-Year Colleges & Universities

One of the most important rites of passage for teens in the United States is to get accepted to their dream university. Being a university student is often referred to as "the best four years of your life" and "achieving the American dream." While those terms of endearment may ring true, it's important to know all about colleges and universities if you plan on attending one in your near future.

For starters, consider this: There were 16.4 million undergraduate students enrolled in degree-granting programs in fall 2008, according to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). Universities offer students an array of programs, most of which lead to a four-year bachelor's degree. Universities also offer graduate programs of study, which confer degrees including master's and doctoral degrees, and professional degrees in fields like law and medicine.

History of Universities in America
The College of William and Mary is often credited as the first college to become a university in the United States in 1779. But the U.S. higher education system dates back even farther than that, and other institutions including Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania, claim to be the first as well. It's a tough distinction to make since the term "university" is often used loosely, or interchangeably with the word "college."

Nevertheless, it's fair to say the rich university tradition in the United States is well over two centuries old.

Benefits of Attending a University
Attending a university and graduating with a bachelor's degree can have many benefits. For one thing, numerous studies have shown a direct relationship between income and educational attainment, meaning that the more advanced your education, the better salary you can earn. There's also a certain prestige that comes with being a university graduate, along with the value of the knowledge one acquires for its own sake. Finally, being a university student is often considered a life "experience" in which young adults discover who they are, make connections with new friends and mentors, and shape their futures.

Difference Between Universities and Other Forms of Higher Education
So what is the difference between a college and a university? In the U.S., "college" is often a blanket term used to describe any institution of higher education. But the term "university" usually indicates that a school has more resources for its students, including libraries and research opportunities. Also, universities are divided up into individual colleges, while colleges are divided into various academic departments. In Canada, "university" refers to a four-year school only. Therefore, if you are going for your bachelor's degree in Canada, you would say, "I'm off to university in the fall."

How to Find Out More About Universities
"Students should start researching colleges and universities earlier and earlier," says Earl D. Brooks II, Ph.D., president of Trine University, Angola, IN. "They should begin looking at options no later than their sophomore year, or perhaps even in the latter half of their freshman year." When looking at schools, students should consider colleges and universities that offer programs they are interested in pursuing, and that match their academic and lifestyle interests, he adds.

While preliminary research can begin online at school websites or college search engines, or in the library flipping through guidebooks, the best way to truly get a feel for a university you are considering is to go see it for yourself. This can be done by scheduling a campus tour.

"Campus tours are very important. More students make the decision to attend or not attend a college because of taking the time to get a feel of the campus from its buildings and grounds to its people and culture," says Brooks. He encourages students to take their research even further by asking questions about each prospective university's graduation rates, job placement rates after graduation, internship and co-op opportunities, and more. "After carefully researching information, students will be surprised at what they find," says Brooks.

Applying to a University
Before you start applying to several universities, you need to decide if a university education is actually right for you. According to Marty Nemko , an Oakland, CA-based college and career counselor and author of the book, The All-in-One College Guide. Here are the top three attributes needed to succeed as a university student:

  • The academic firepower to graduate: Remember, according to the U.S. Dept of Education, if you've graduated in the bottom 40% of your high school class, your chances of graduating from a "four-year" college are just 25% even if given 8 1/2 years!
  • Self-motivation in the face of frustration (in getting into classes, difficult classes, personal problems, a roommate who drives you crazy)
  • Clarity that you'd flower more in a four-year college than at a community college living with your parents, the military, an apprenticeship, a career college, and/or learning on the job at the elbow of a master, for example, a successful and ethical small business owner.

The best way to get ready for university life is to be successful in high school. "In order to set themselves up for successful college careers, students should leave high school having more than the minimum requirements," says Brooks. "Students need to have the mentality of setting the bar high, not settling for the lowest common denominator." His university's preferred set of skills include a solid background in science, mathematics, English and humanities, as well as basic computer and technology skills. "No matter what degrees students pursue, they will still be required at most institutions to take classes in each of those areas," he explains.

Typical Length of Degree/Education Types at Universities
Completing a bachelor's degree program at a university typically takes four years for students who attend full-time. Many students do take an extra semester or two to fulfill their degree requirements because of a variety of factors, which can include changing majors, or not passing required courses the first time around. In some rare instances, students graduate in a shorter time span than four years by taking extra courses and/or earning advanced placement credits in high school.

Skill Sets Developed in a University Degree Program
A traditional university education is designed to provide students with a well-rounded foundation of knowledge based in the liberal arts. For the majority of university bachelor's degree programs, students will be required to take a "core curriculum" of classes that include study in English, math, sciences, history, art/music, and other areas as designated by each university. Beyond the core, students choose their "majors" in a specific field of interest that often focus on professional skills. They also have room left for some "elective" courses, in which they can take courses that simply interest them.

Fun University Facts

  • The word "University" comes from the Latin phrase universitas magistrorum et scholarium , which means "a community of masters and scholars."
  • According to the latest U.S. News & World Report rankings, the top three U.S. universities are Harvard University, Princeton University, Yale University.
  • Among the most famous university dropouts include technology geniuses Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Michael Dell.

Four-Year Colleges & Universities

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