How Many Colleges Are In The US? Numbers Of Colleges And Educational Institutions.

Today, there are some 5,300 colleges and universities in the United States, everything from beauty schools to Harvard. Though we often refer to them collectively as “the American higher-education system,” it’s far from an organized system. 

How many accredited colleges are in the US?

It seems like universities are generally counted together with colleges. So here is the answer from the Association of American Colleges and Universities. It says there are two thousand six hundred eighteen accredited four-year colleges and universities. Most operate privately or as part of state governments.

How Many Colleges Are In The US? Numbers Of Colleges And Educational Institutions.
How Many Colleges Are In The US? Numbers Of Colleges And Educational Institutions. College Density By State.

In the US, higher education refers to optional schooling that is done after secondary (high school) education. Also known as tertiary education, third level, third stage, post-secondary education, or higher education takes place either in universities or colleges all around the country. Higher education institutions comprise of liberal arts colleges, public universities, for-profit colleges, private universities, or community colleges. American universities and colleges have been ranked among the most prestigious in the world mostly due to high levels of research and strong funding. These institutions attract international students, researchers, and professors who are in pursuit of academic excellence. Unlike third level education systems in places such as Australia and the UK, the US comprises of the world’s most unique education that strongly emphasizes on Liberal Arts education in the curriculum of its higher education.


Some of the early colleges were founded by religious denominations that needed to educate ministers. For instance, Harvard College was established in 1636 by the colonial legislature, initially, the institution focused on training ministry to young men. The first higher education institution was founded in 1659 by Aleksander Karol Kurcjusz in New Amsterdam. Some of the other early institutions include the College of William and Mary established in 1693, Yale College in 1701, and Princeton formerly known as the College of New Jersey in 1747. Between the 19th and 20th centuries small colleges were opened by numerous protestant denominations and the Catholics as well. Some of those established by the Catholics included a number of colleges for women.

Statistics on Colleges in the US

In the year 2012, higher education institutions in the US were about 4,726 institutions that grant degrees. Out of the total, 3,026 were 4-year institutions while 1,700 were 2-year institutions. However, between 2014 and 2015 the total number had reduced to 4,627 institutions. In the year 2010, over 21 million students were enrolled in higher education institutions, this is about 5.7% of the country’s total population. A longitudinal survey was done in 2002 by the Department of Education of 15,000 students, 10 years later the same survey was carried out on the same students. According to the survey, 84% of the students at age 27 years had gotten a little bit of college education. However, about 34% attained a bachelor’s degree or higher. While 79% of the students owed the government some money for college, 55% owed more than $10,000. The survey also found out that those students who dropped out of college were three times unlikely to find employment than the those who graduated from college. About 40% of the 27-year olds spend some time without finding employment while 23% stayed up to six months or more without employment. Finally, about 79% of the former high school students grossed below $40,000 per year.

Current Trends in the Number of Colleges and College Enrollment

According to research by the National Student Clearinghouse, the enrollment of college students in the US has decreased for five consecutive years. In the two decades that follow, this decline is projected to continue. Surveys done by both Gallup poll and the Pew Research Center in 2017, found that the public opinion about colleges in the US has been declining, mostly among the white working class and the Republicans. Since the issue of funding is also threatening the existence of higher education institutions in the US, other countries are now offering incentives to poach some of the acclaimed professors and researchers.

How many educational institutions exist in the United States?

During most of the last century, the trend of consolidating small schools brought declines in the total number of public schools in the United States. In 1929–30, there were approximately 248,000 public schools, compared with about 98,000 in 2014–15. However, the number of public schools has increased in recent decades. Between 1988–89 and 2006–07, there was an increase of approximately 15,600 schools. Since 2006–07, the number of public schools has remained relatively stable, varying by about 500 schools or less from year to year.

Since the early 1970s, public school systems have been shifting away from junior high schools (schools consisting of either grades 7 and 8 or grades 7 to 9) and moving toward middle schools (a subset of elementary schools beginning with grade 4, 5, or 6 and ending with grade 6, 7, or 8). Although the number of all elementary schools (schools beginning with grade 6 or below and having no grade higher than 8) was similar in 1970–71 and 2000–01 (64,000 and 64,600, respectively), the number of middle schools was 462 percent higher in 2000–01 than in 1970–71 (11,700 vs. 2,100). During the same period, the number of junior high schools declined by 57 percent (from 7,800 in 1970–71 to 3,300 in 2000–01). Between 2004–05 and 2014–15, the number of all elementary schools rose by 2 percent to 67,100, while the subset of middle schools rose by 6 percent to 13,300. During the same period, the number of junior high schools declined by 17 percent to 2,700.

Number of educational institutions, by level and control of institution: Selected years, 1980–81 through 2014–15
Number of educational institutions, by level and control of institution: Selected years, 1980–81 through 2014–15

Elementary and Secondary Education


In fall 2018, about 56.6 million students will attend elementary and secondary schools, including 50.7 million students in public schools and 5.9 million in private schools. Of the public school students, 35.6 million will be in prekindergarten through grade 8 and 15.1 million will be in grades 9 through 12. The fall 2018 public school enrollment is expected to be slightly higher than the 50.6 million enrolled in fall 2017 and is higher than the 49.5 million students enrolled in fall 2010 . Total public elementary and secondary enrollment is projected to increase between fall 2018 and fall 2027 to 52.1 million.

Of the projected 50.7 million public school students entering prekindergarten through grade 12 in fall 2018, White students will account for 24.1 million. The remaining 26.6 million will be composed of 7.8 million Black students, 14.0 million Hispanic students, 2.6 million Asian students, 0.2 million Pacific Islander students, 0.5 million American Indian/Alaska Native students, and 1.6 million students of Two or more races. The percentage of students enrolled in public schools who are White is projected to continue to decline through at least fall 2027 along with the percentage of students who are Black, while the percentage of students who are Hispanic Asian, and of Two or more races are projected to increase.

In fall 2018, about 1.4 million children are expected to attend public prekindergarten and 3.6 million are expected to attend public kindergarten.

About 4.0 million public school students are expected to enroll in 9th grade in fall 2018 . Students typically enter American high schools in 9th grade.


Public school systems will employ about 3.2 million full-time-equivalent (FTE) teachers in fall 2018, such that the number of pupils per FTE teacher—that is, the pupil/teacher ratio—will be 16.0. This ratio has remained consistent at around 16.0 since 2010. A projected 0.5 million FTE teachers will be working in private schools this fall, resulting in an estimated pupil/teacher ratio of 12.3, which is similar to the 2017 ratio of 12.2, but lower than the 2010 ratio of 13.0 .


Current expenditures for public elementary and secondary schools are projected to be $654 billion for the 2018–19 school year. The current expenditure per student is projected to be $12,910 for the 2018–19 school year.


About 3.6 million students are expected to graduate from high school in 2018–19, including 3.3 million students from public high schools and 0.4 million students from private high schools.

College and University Education


The number of students projected to attend American colleges and universities in fall 2018 is 19.9 million, which is higher than the enrollment of 15.3 million students in fall 2000, but lower than the enrollment peak of 21.0 million in fall 2010. Total enrollment is expected to increase between fall 2018 and fall 2027 to 20.5 million.

Females are expected to account for the majority of college and university students in fall 2018: about 11.2 million females will attend in fall 2018, compared with 8.7 million males. Also, more students are expected to attend full time (an estimated 12.1 million students) than part time (7.8 million students).

Some 6.7 million students will attend 2-year institutions and 13.3 million will attend 4-year institutions in fall 2018 . About 17.0 million students are expected to enroll in undergraduate programs, and 2.9 million are expected to enroll in postbaccalaureate programs.

In 2018, a projected 12.3 million college and university students will be under age 25 and 7.6 million students will be 25 years old and over. The number of college and university students under age 25 hit a peak of 12.2 million in 2011 and has remained steady since that time. The number of students 25 years old and over hit a similar peak in 2010 (of 8.9 million) but the overall enrollment for this age group declined from 2010 to 2018.


During the 2018–19 school year, colleges and universities are expected to award 1.0 million associate‘s degrees; 1.9 million bachelor's degrees; 780,000 master's degrees; and 182,000 doctor's degrees. In 2015–16, postsecondary institutions awarded 939,000 certificates below the associate‘s degree level, 1.0 million associate‘s degrees, 1.9 million bachelor‘s degrees, 786,000 master‘s degrees, and 178,000 doctor‘s degrees.

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: There are so many schools in the U.S. How do I decide which schools to apply to?

A: Research your options and define your priorities. Contact the EducationUSA advising center nearest you and browse college search engines online. Check to see if the schools your are considering are accredited.

Q: What’s the difference between a college and a university?

A: Colleges offer only undergraduate degrees while universities offer graduate degrees as well, but the terms are often used interchangeably.

Q: Are there age limitations to attend U.S. universities? 

A: In general, you must have completed high school and you must be at least 17 years of age.

Q: What is the academic calendar for universities in the United States?

A: The academic year usually runs from August through May with breaks for holidays. Most universities use either the semester system (two terms), the quarter system (students attend three out of four total terms), or the trimester system (three terms).

Q: What is the difference between "Undergraduate" and "Graduate" degrees?

A: Undergraduate programs follow high school and lead to an associate (two-year) degree or a bachelor (four-year) degree. Graduate programs follow a bachelor’s degree and lead to a master’s or doctoral degree.

Q: What are the different types of undergraduate degrees?

A: Associate: a two-year program that either leads to a specific vocation or transitions to a bachelor program. Bachelor: a four or five-year program where students earn credits in a wide variety of courses.

Q: What are the different types of  graduate degrees?

A: Masters: two-year degree providing additional specialization. Doctorate: five to eight-year program certifying the student as a trained research scholar and/or professor.

Q: Is it possible to take a professional degree program without first earning a bachelor's degree?

A: Yes, but they are highly selective and require a heavy courseload across a total of six years of study.

Q: Is it possible to obtain a bachelor's degree and a master's degree at the same time?

A: In a joint-degree program, students begin a graduate program in their fourth year of college, earning both degrees upon graduation.

Q: What is the length of study for MBA programs in the U.S.?

A: MBA programs typically last one to two years.

Q: Can you work while studying in the United States?

A: With permission of the International Student Office, international students may work on campus up to 20 hours/week their first year and can apply to work off-campus in subsequent years.

Q: What is the difference between online studies and distance studies?

A: Essentially there is no difference.

Q: What is distance education?

A: Distance education occurs when a student and an instructor are in different places. Learning occurs by mail, telephone, internet, or by other means.

Q: Is distance learning available at the graduate level?

A: Yes. To find accredited online distance learning programs, please search the Distance Education Accrediting Commission website.  

Q: Can I transfer to a U.S. university from a university outside of the United States?

A: Yes, although you may lose some credits and require extra time to complete your degree.

Q: What is the transfer application process?

A: You must fulfill the requirements of a freshman applicant, as well as any supplemental information required by the transfer institution.

Q: What is a community college?

A: Community colleges are typically state-supported and provide the first two years of a four-year undergraduate degree.

Q: Why should I attend community college?

A: Community colleges offer lower costs, easier admission policies, close ties to state schools,and many of the required courses connected to a degree.

Q: How do you transfer from a community college to a four-year university? 

A: The transfer process varies for each school. It is best to target the four-year institution early and determine what is needed to transfer.

Q: How can I find out if an institution is accredited?

A: Search the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Post-secondary Education website to see if an institution is accredited.

Q: How can I find out if a specialized program of study is accredited?

A: For specialized program accreditation, see “Accredited Institutions of Postsecondary Education,” available from American Council on Education.

Q: How can I find out which universities are rated best for a specific academic major?

A: Refer to college and university guides to find which institutions are known for excellence in different fields of study.

Q: What are English language proficiency requirements?

A: U.S. universities require an English language proficiency test before admission to ensure you can read, write, and speak fluently.

Q: I want to study in the United States, but my English proficiency isn’t good enough yet. What can I do?

A: There are a number of programs for English language study in the United States and online, as well as local possibilities.

Q: Do students have to study a fixed set of subjects or can they individually form their major?

A: It depends: Some degree programs are highly structured. Bachelors' degrees are very flexible and sometimes allow you to create your own program.

Q: When do you declare a major?

A: You do not declare a major until the end of you second year of school.

Q: What is a liberal arts college?

A: A liberal arts college offers courses in humanities, languages, math, social and natural sciences, and students take 25-50% of their courses in their major.

Q: What are the benefits of a liberal arts education?

A: A liberal arts college offers a smaller setting and teaches critical thinking and communication skills necessary in an ever-changing job market.

Q: What is the credit system in U.S. universities?

A: A credit is a value assigned to each course which reflects the number of hours the class will meet with the professor each week.

Q: What is a GPA?

A: Grade Point Average (GPA) is a numeric indicator for a student's academic performance, calculated on a scale of 4.0.

Q: What is the U.S. grading system?

A: Letter grades indicate a student's academic performance. Each letter grade has a numeric value which is used to calculate a GPA, on a scale of 4.0.

Q: How are grades determined in U.S. universities?

A: Grades are typically determined by quizzes, midterms, final exams, papers, projects, class attendance, and class participation.

Q: What is the difference between state and private universities?

A: State universities are funded by the state and are generally larger and less expensive than private universities.

Q: Are there opportunities for university exchange programs?

A: Contact the office responsible for international programs at your institution to ask if your school has exchange agreements with U.S. universities.

Q: How can an international student find out what academic subjects from their country are acceptable for a U.S. university?

A: Each U.S. university will want to review an international student's subjects and may ask the student to contact a credential evaluation agency.

Q: How can I apply for vocational training in the United States? 

A: U.S. institutions cannot issue I-20 forms for non-degree study, including vocational training. Community colleges offer technical/vocational study for an associate's degree.

Q: What’s the best general advice for an incoming student?

A: Attend the closest Education USA advising center's predeparture orientation. Then, when you arrive on campus, attend all orientation meetings scheduled at your college or university.



[1] College and Higher Education -

[2] Colleges/Universities - Data and Statistics

[3] Study in USA -