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The ultimate guide to applying to a graduate program: Part 1. Know the types of universities and degrees

If you’re interested in applying to a graduate program in the US, you probably already have at least a Bachelor’s degree or are finishing it up. Think back to your undergrad. What type of university did you attend? How was your education funded?

These questions are especially important to consider in the context of US graduate schools. Understanding what types of universities are out there and how they differ can help you filter out certain options during your search. Plus, you’ll be better equipped at figuring out the funding models and potential funding pitfalls.

Public, not for-profit private and for-profit private universities

Generally, all universities in the US that offer graduate degrees are divided into 3 categories based on 2 criteria:

  • The main source of funding (public or private universities)
  • The financial goals of the university (for-profit or not for-profit)

(state funding + private funding)

(private funding)

(university has to make profit for stakeholders)


Private for-profit universities

Not for-profit
(university doesn’t have to make profit for stakeholders)

Public universities

Private not for-profit universities

Public universities are always not for-profit institutions, while private ones can be of either type. Not for-profit universities do not have a goal to earn a certain amount of money each year while for-profit universities have to generate a certain revenue to stay open.

Public universities are sponsored through several sources, including state support, some federal funding, tuition and endowments (private donations). Private universities rely heavily on private donations and tuition, without any support from the government. This drives the cost of tuition up as compared to public institutions.

There are a few additional differences to consider:


Public universities

Private not for-profit universities

Private for-profit universities


State funding + private funding (including tuition, donations, etc.)

Private funding

Financial goals

Don’t have to make profit for stakeholders

Have to make profit for stakeholders

Tuition costs

Typically tuition is less expensive in public universities (at least for in-state students - those who are residents of the university state) but it varies.

Tuition is very expensive

School size (number of students)

Usually big

Usually smaller than public universities



More campus facilities

More opportunities for networking

Probably more diverse campus/student life

More undergrads -> easier to get a TA position

Fewer undergrads to teach -> more research-oriented graduate positions (but depends on the university)

Don’t depend on state funding - state cuts won’t affect your program funding

Can be easier to get in


A lot of bureaucracy

Can be really hard to get in

Their diplomas might be less prestigious or even not accepted in some places

Might get shut down if they don’t generate enough profit - even in the middle of your progress toward graduation

In general, you want to consider public or not for-profit schools because they tend to be widely recognized, cheaper, and more secure. So your choice will most likely boil down to public vs. private not for-profit universities. Both have advantages and disadvantages so you will need to consider other factors when making a decision.

Here is a list of the top-5 public and private non-profit universities with some additional data. I chose them based on Niche ranking and excluded highly specialized and small public universities from this list. Other websites might provide different rankings. Moreover, the enrollment and tuition numbers change at least yearly, so the numbers might be different when you read this.



Undergraduate student population

Graduate student population

Graduate tuition costs per year (usually fall + spring semesters)

University of Michigan - Ann Arbor



$24,241 for in-state students

$48,579 for out-of-state students.

University of Virginia



$16,018 for in-state students

$26,830 for out-of-state students

University of California - Los Angeles



$12,946 for in-state students

$28,048 for out-of-state students

University of California - Berkeley



$14,131 for in-state students, $29,233 for out-of-state students

Georgia Institute of Technology






Undergraduate student population

Graduate student population

Graduate tuition costs per year

MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology)




Stanford University




Harvard University




Yale University




Princeton University




Types of graduate degrees

Now that you know what types of universities to aim for, let’s consider the types of degrees they offer. They can be categorized as follows:

(1) Master’s degrees

  • Take 1-2 years to complete.
  • Hard to get funding.
  • Depending on the program, you might have more research-based courses, more applied courses and more opportunities for hands-on practice than in undergrad.
  • Depending on the program, you might have to write a Master's Thesis.
  • Different names of this degree based on the major:
    • MA = Master of Arts (usually used in social sciences)
    • MS = Master of Science
    • MBA = Master of Business Administration
    • MEd = Master of Education
    • MJ = Master of Jurisprudence...

(2) Doctoral degrees

  • 3-6 years to complete.
  • Very research-oriented.
  • Dissertation is a requirement for graduation.
  • Often used to prepare for future academic career (i. e., professorship and research work).
  • Results in the Ph.D. degree (Doctor of Philosophy).

(3) Professional degrees

  • 1-5 years to complete depending on the field and program
  • Help prepare for careers in a specific field (law, pharmacy, medicine, education)
  • Examples of titles:
    • JD = Juris Doctor
    • MD = Doctor of Medicine
    • EdD = Doctor of Education
    • PharmD =  Doctor of Pharmacy

(4) Specialist degrees

  • In the USA, they are above Master’s but below doctorates. 
  • School Psychology and Curriculum and Instruction are two of the most common areas where a specialist degree is found.
  • Types include:
    • Ed.S. or Sp. Ed. - Specialist of Education
    • Psy. S. - Specialist in Psychology
    • S. S. P. - Specialist in School Psychology

As you can see, each degree type varies by their focus, duration, outcomes and funding opportunities. The choice of the degree will largely depend on your career goals, financial situation, and personal interests.

How do you know which degree will be the best fit? Read Part Two of this series to find out! 

Other posts of the series: