STEP 2: Explore and research potential colleges

Many people choose colleges based on individual needs like costs, housing, education preparedness, location, chosen major and/or career interest. Below is an overview of the various degrees after high school and the college system in California.

Types of Degrees

  • Associate's Degree - awarded by a community college and typically requires 2 years of full time study
  • Bachelor's Degree - a 4 year college degree
  • Master's Degree - a college degree beyond the Bachelor's, typically after two years of additional study
  • Doctorate - an academic degree or professional degree that represents the highest level of formal study or research in a given field

Community or Junior Colleges

Community or junior colleges offer a degree after the completion of two years of full time study. They frequently offer technical programs that prepare a student for immediate entry into the job market. Also, students beginning a higher education at a community college in hopes of transferring to a university is becoming  more common, as many do not prepare during high school or do not have the money to pay for higher education. As a precursor to college and university education, community college can save the student money and provide a transitional pathway to independent living.


  • Admit all students who are 18 years or a high school graduate
  • No admittance test required (there is a placement test to assess academic level)
  • Offer an associates degree after the completion of two years of full time study
  • Offer technical programs that prepare the student for immediate entry into the job market
  • Offer coursework that applies toward a four year degree at State and UC colleges
  • Usually no housing is available
  • Offer financial aid

Examples of California Community Colleges

College of San Mateo, Canada College, Skyline College

Universities and Upper Division Schools

Generally, a university is bigger than a college and offers more majors, and research facilities. Class size often reflects institutional size and some classes may be taught by graduate students. Upper division schools offer the last two years of undergraduate study, usually in specialized programs leading to a bachelor's degree. You would generally transfer to an upper division college after completing an associate's degree or after finishing a second year of study at a four year college.


  • Universities offer Bachelor's, Master's, Doctoral and professional degrees
  • Each campus has an academic focus or strength
  • Must meet admission requirements
  • College entrance tests required (ACT, SAT)
  • On-campus housing is available at most schools
  • Offer financial aid

Examples of California Public Universities

San Francisco State University, Cal State East Bay, San Jose State University, UC Berkeley, UC Santa Cruz

Public vs. Private

On one hand, public colleges are usually less expensive, particularly for in-state residents. They receive most of their funding from the state or local government. Private colleges rely on tuition, fees, endowments, and other private sources. On the other hand, private colleges are usually smaller and can offer more personalized attention (and some believe more prestige).


  • Offer Associate's, Bachelor's, Master's, Doctorate and professional degrees
  • Each school is different and offers various learning environments
  • Usually smaller and offer more personalized attention
  • Check with the school you are interested in for information on entrance exams
  • Offer financial aid

Examples of California Private Universities

Notre Dame de Namur, Stanford University

Specialized Colleges - Agricultural, Technical, and Specialized Colleges

Youth may be seeking new ways to increase their earning potential, or may want to explore different career options and a vocational school may be the answer. Before a student decides to select and apply to a vocational school, he or she should familiarize themselves with both the program they are interested in and the institution itself. Specialized colleges emphasize preparation for specific careers such as art, cosmetology, music, Bible, business, health science and more.

Examples of California Specialized Schools

Academy of Art in San Francisco, Cordon Bleu Culinary, Heald College

Other Specialized Schools

  • Liberal arts colleges: offer a broad base of courses in the humanities, social sciences and sciences. Most are private and focus mainly on undergraduate students. Classes tend to be small and personal attention is available.
  • Single-sex: all four year public colleges and most private schools are co-ed. Although they may enroll a few members of the opposite sex, there are fewer than 100 colleges for only men and a similar amount for women.
  • Religiously affiliated colleges: some private colleges are affiliated with a religious faith. The affiliation may be historic only or it may affect day-to-day student life.
  • Historically black colleges: Historical Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) have provided African-Americans higher education for more than a century. The U.S. Department of Education lists 106 HBCUs spanning 20 states, the U.S. Virgin Islands and the District of Columbia. These schools offer students a unique opportunity to experience an educational community in which they're part of the majority.
  • Hispanic-serving institutes: the Federal Government considers a college as "Hispanic-serving" if at least 25 percent of the total full-time undergraduate enrollment is made up of Hispanic students.