Types of Universities: For-Profit, Nonprofit, Private, and Public Universities

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There are all sorts of different colleges out there today completely online universities, traditional colleges, state schools, private colleges, for-profit colleges. But what does a university’s label or category really mean? Here’s a look at what common terms can tell you about a school.

Types of Universities: For-Profit, Nonprofit, Private, and Public Universities

For-profit institution

A for-profit institution is exactly what it sounds like a college or university that strives to make money. For-profits are privately run. According to the National Association for College Admission Counseling, for-profit institutions can receive up to 90 percent of their revenue from federal student aid.

In general, for-profit institutions tend to have more flexible degree programs that allow students to complete programs entirely online or on evenings and weekends, and focus less on the campus life experience. If you plan to transfer to a nonprofit institution at any point in your college career, check with the nonprofit school to ensure that your credits will transfer from a for-profit. Usually a college and/or academic degree program must be properly accredited in order for credits to transfer.

Nonprofit (aka not-for-profit) institution:

students entering inside the campus

These institutions are typically the traditional types of colleges that come to mind. Nonprofit institutions usually receive funding from the government, tuition and endowments, and the money received is put back into the curriculum, instruction and other college operations that support students and faculty. These institutions are led by administrators, faculty and staff, often under the direction of a Board of Trustees.

Nonprofit institutions may offer traditional daytime degree programs, as well as hybrid (half on campus, half online), online, or evening and weekend programs. Most nonprofit colleges offer a traditional campus life experience sports teams, student clubs, dorm living and more.

Private college

Private colleges and universities are funded by endowments, tuition and donations. A private college can be a for-profit or nonprofit institution.

Public university

public university in US

Public universities usually receive their largest chunk of funding from the state. They also may rely on tuition and donor support, especially in recent years as states have cut their education budgets. Public universities are nonprofit institutions. Because these schools are state-run, they usually offer lower tuition rates to residents of the state where the school is located.

So which type of college is the best? Well, that’s really up to you and your needs and interests as a student. However, a recent report from the National Center on Education Statistics showed that bachelor’s degree graduation rates at four-year colleges and universities was 57 percent at public institutions, 65 percent at private nonprofit institutions and 42 percent at private for-profit institutions.

No matter what type of college you’re considering, be sure to ask about accreditation, as well as job placement and graduation rates. Plus, talk with an admission counselor about financial aid options and visit the college campus to help determine if it’s the right fit for you.

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Elizabeth Abner
WRITTEN BY Elizabeth Abner

Elizabeth is pursuing a Doctor of Philosophy in Foreign Policy and earned her master's degree in business administration. For her undergraduate studies, she earned a Bachelor of Arts in Business Administration with a concentration in international business. Elizabeth's research is focused on universities offering online degree programs.