College Terms

Feeling confused about college terminology? You’re not alone. Check out our college terms and definitions below.

A way in which colleges in the US can choose to be reviewed by trained, qualified evaluators who also work in higher education. Accreditation reviews generally look at a college’s: compliance with basic, required criteria and mission fulfillme...[read more]

Advisor / advising
College employee who helps you choose a major and complete a degree. There are two common models of academic advising, staff advising and faculty advising. Staff advisors are not full-time faculty members. They may teach some classes, but most of th...[read more]

Associate of Applied Science (AAS) degree
An undergraduate degree that takes about 2 years of full-time study to earn. Usually, AAS degrees are in practical fields that apply information to work.

Associate of Arts (AA) degree
An undergraduate degree that takes about 2 years of full-time study to earn. AA degrees include strong general education requirements.

Associate Professor / Assistant Professor / Adjunct Professor or Instructor
Someone who teaches college classes but does not work full time for the college. Adjunct faculty members generally are not considered “members of the faculty” and likely do not have a role in academic decision-making.

Signing up to attend and learn in a class without having to do the assignments, but also without earning credit. Audit comes from Latin words about “hearing,” so to audit a class is to “hear” it, but not to do the required wor...[read more]

Bachelor’s (or Baccalaureate) degree
An undergraduate degree that usually takes about 4 years of full-time study to earn. There are two common types of bachelor’s degrees, the Bachelor of Arts (BA) and the Bachelor of Science (BS). Other bachelor’s degrees are sometimes give...[read more]

The physical space a college uses — its buildings and grounds. Often college campuses are beautiful spaces, with interesting architecture and carefully maintained landscaping; this is a centuries-old tradition of learning in attractive places. (One...[read more]

An academic credential that is awarded when a student successfully completes a program, consisting of several courses. Certificate programs are smaller than degree programs, and they relate to specific jobs or skills. They can be at the undergraduate...[read more]

A chair is, most commonly, a faculty member who manages an academic department. This person “chairs,” or oversees, the faculty in that department, as well as the department’s curriculum. Often department chairs participate in govern...[read more]

A chancellor is a college official whose role varies from institution to institution. There are at least three possible roles for chancellors. Honorary title: chancellors who hold an honorary title are associated with a college or university for suc...[read more]

Different areas of study that are related to one another. Cognates are smaller than majors. They are often similar to minors. But while a minor is completed by itself, a cognate always accompanies another, related area of study. For example, a studen...[read more]

College is an institution of higher education that grants undergraduate degrees. In some cases these are independent institutions, like Berea College, College of the Ozarks or College of the Holy Cross. Other colleges are not independent, but are pa...[read more]

College counselor
Someone who advises students in some way. Sometimes college counselors help students select and apply to colleges, or begin attending a college. Other college counselors may assist students in succeeding in college life.

Comprehensive exam (comps)
Used in two ways, one for individual courses and one for degrees (especially graduate degrees). In an individual course, a comprehensive exam is usually the final exam/test for the course and covers all material from the entire course. In a degree, ...[read more]

An area of emphasis in a program of study; used in the same way as “focus.” For example, in an English major, a student may focus on medieval literature, or the American novel, or the short story. In many cases, this would not be official...[read more]

A designation awarded to show that a student has completed a course of academic study and learning. There are different kinds of credentials for different kinds and amounts of learning. Probably the most familiar are degrees; there are associate, bac...[read more]

Credit / credit hour
A unit that a college uses to show that you have completed and passed the courses that you need to finish a degree. Each college decides how many and what type of credits a student needs to finish a degree (although there is often a minimum number fr...[read more]

Learning opportunities offered by a college. All the classes a college offers can be considered the college’s curriculum. Also, each major, minor or certificate has a curriculum, which is the specific classes it requires.

A dean is an administrator in a university or college. Most commonly, a dean leads a school or college within a university. While a dean works with budgets and staffing and other things, the dean’s primary responsibility is for academic oversight....[read more]

Defense / defend
A presentation of a student’s work (especially a thesis or dissertation) to a panel of faculty who ask questions about the work to show the validity of the student’s research. The term is used because the student “defends” his...[read more]

A common academic credential. Degrees are awarded when an undergraduate student completes a course of study that usually includes a major as well as general education requirements. Beyond the bachelor’s degree, students can earn graduate degree...[read more]

A department is a group of faculty members with expertise in a specific academic field (or discipline) who offer courses (and usually degrees) in that field. For example, an English Department has scholars in English literature and, often, rhetoric a...[read more]

In education, an independent research project conducted as the final requirement of a graduate degree, especially a doctorate. The student must pass a “defense” of the dissertation, which includes a panel of faculty who themselves have ea...[read more]

Doctoral degree
The highest type of academic degree, doctoral degrees represent advanced learning in a specific field. If the doctorate is a research degree, it also means the student has demonstrated the ability to conduct independent academic research. Some doctor...[read more]

A category of employees at a college, faculty members have primary responsibility for the curriculum and degree programs; they also usually have input on college policies. Many people think of faculty as teachers or class instructors, and that is an ...[read more]

Financial aid
Money provided to students to help them pay for their education. Financial aid can come from the federal government, a state government, the college itself, students’ employers, students’ parents’ employers and civic/community organ...[read more]

An area of emphasis in a program of study. Often used in the same way as “concentration.”

General education courses
General education (or Gen Ed) refers to required courses for a degree other than courses in the student’s major.

Graduate degree
A graduate degree is any degree earned after completion of an undergraduate degree, such as master’s and doctoral degrees. One category of graduate degree is called a professional degree.

Graduate student
Students earning a graduate degree are often called “grad students,” short for graduate students.

A type of financial aid. It is free money that the federal or a state government, a company, a school, or a charity gives to a student. You do not have to pay it back. Grants are very similar to another type of aid, scholarships; both differ from loa...[read more]

Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC)
A LPC is the official term used in many states for an individual who has earned a Master of Arts in Counseling. They have undergone further testing by successfully passing the National Counselors Examination (NCE) by the National Board of Certified C...[read more]

A type of financial aid. It is an amount of money that is given to you for a period of time that you have to pay back later. International students can usually not get U.S. federal government loans, and usually, have to have an American citizen sign ...[read more]

The area of study that you choose to focus on in college. Normally, you choose your major by the end of your sophomore year so that you can take courses in that specific field of study during your junior and senior years.

Master’s degree
A graduate degree that you can usually only begin after you completed a bachelor’s degree and takes about two years to earn if you study full-time.

A second area of study that you choose to focus on in college. It is not required, but it lets you take courses in a different field of study from what you choose for your major.

Non-profit or not-for-profit college or university
The traditional type of private college/university in the US. Public colleges/universities are also not for-profit organizations. This means that the college does not have to generate money for investors or owners as part of its mission: it does not ...[read more]

PhD degree
A doctor of philosophy degree. In the US, this is often considered the “highest” or most rigorous doctorate. It is a “research doctorate,” meaning that it requires significant independent research, usually in the form of a dis...[read more]

Postsecondary education
A postsecondary education is college or other education that comes after high school. High school is also known as “secondary” education, following elementary (“primary”) education. “Post-” is a Latin word that mea...[read more]

Private college or university
A college or university not owned or operated by a government. This includes both non-profit private colleges and for-profit colleges.

Professional degree
A graduate degree focused on preparing for a specific vocation; common professional degrees are in law (the JD, or juris doctor) and medicine (the MD, or doctor of medicine). Professional degrees are often terminal degrees but do not generally requir...[read more]

A term for both a category of college employee and for a rank. Faculty members who teach (but not teaching assistants) at a college or university are usually considered professors. In this sense “professor” is the term for the category &#...[read more]

A way a student can demonstrate learning, often involving creative methods. Examples include artwork to illustrate concepts or skills, a musical composition or possibly a curriculum design. In some cases, students may be able to choose a project inst...[read more]

This is the title used at some institutions for the chief academic officer, the highest-ranking academic administrator. In a university, each college or school is typically led by a dean, who is the highest-ranking academic officer within the colle...[read more]

Public college or university
A college or university owned/operated by a government. The most common of these in the US are state colleges and universities. Typically public colleges are named for places, as described below. Community and technical colleges are often named for ...[read more]

see Academic terms.

Residency is generally divided into two categories: in-state and out-of-state. In-state residents pay in-state tuition rates. Out-of-state residents pay out-of-state rates. Some institutions have the same rate for each. In most cases though, in-state...[read more]

Resident assistant (RA)
Representatives of the student deans and the Student Affairs Office. These classmates will provide peer support, ensure that the environment is clean, and work to ensure that all students comply with those rules and standards which provide for a heal...[read more]

A type of financial aid. It is free money that a school, individual, organization, company, charity or government gives to a student. Other types of financial aid are loans and grants.

see Academic terms.

State college or university
See public college or university.

Student Affairs
The branch of the college or university that oversees student life. This involves creating and implementing programs that promote student well-being, ensuring student safety, enforcing institutional policies related to student life, and serving as re...[read more]

Student dean
A representative from the student affairs department that directly oversees student life. Typically there is a dean of men to oversee the men’s dorm and a dean of women oversee the women’s dorm. They directly supervise the resident assist...[read more]

Subsidized loan
Is a type of loan that you only start paying interest on after you graduate from college. Compare this with unsubsidized loans.

Teaching assistant
Graduate students who teach a class (sometimes they help a faculty member teach a large class). Typically teaching assistants teach in the same academic area they are studying.

A “guarantee” of continued employment for a faculty member. Faculty members are awarded tenure when they demonstrate ability in teaching, research and service over time. Having tenure gives additional rights and privileges. Not all colleg...[read more]

Term In US higher education “term” can mean a range of things. Probably most familiar are semester terms. These traditionally included autumn/fall (from August or September to December, usually) and spring (from January to May often). Mos...[read more]

Terminal degree
Usually used to mean the highest academic degree offered in a specific academic discipline. Often this is a doctoral degree, but not always, and sometimes this changes over time. For example, the Master of Fine Arts (MFA) used to be the terminal degr...[read more]

Terms / academic terms
The main timeframes of the academic year. In the US, the academic year begins in the fall (August) and ends in late spring (May or June), although some colleges offer classes throughout the year. For many colleges, the academic year is divided into t...[read more]

A final research project, usually a paper, produced to earn a degree. In the US theses (the plural form) are typically a requirement for a master’s degree; sometimes a student can choose to write a thesis or complete a comprehensive examination...[read more]

Title IV
Title IV is a section of US law that authorizes funds for students to be able to attend college, typically called federal financial aid. Some of the more common financial aid programs that are part of Title IV are the Pell Grant and the Direct Staffo...[read more]

Title IX
Title IX is a section of US law that prohibits sex-based discrimination in education. Often understood as intended to provide women with equal access to education. Title IX is also interpreted to ban harassment or other sex-based actions that would ...[read more]

A group of courses in a major that add specificity to a student’s degree. It’s a way for students to “specialize” within their field of study. If you choose the track, you take all classes in that group.

An official record of your college learning. The transcript lists the courses you took and the grades you earned, typically by academic term. The transcript will also list any degree(s) you earn and may include other information depending on the coll...[read more]

Undergraduate degree
An undergraduate degree is a degree you earn after high school such as associate degrees and bachelor degrees.

Undergraduate student
Students working toward an undergraduate degree. This distinguishes them from graduate students.

A university is an institution of higher education that awards both undergraduate and graduate degrees and/or that includes multiple colleges and schools. A college (or school) focuses on similar academic areas. Examples include the following: arts...[read more]

Unsubsidized loan
A type of loan that you start paying interest on immediately. Compare this with subsidized loans.

Upperclassman or upperclass student
Undergraduate students who are juniors or seniors (usually third and fourth year, or more). You may sometimes hear it applied to sophomores as well, or any students not in their first year.

Term categories

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