Higher Education Terms

ACT (American College Test): A standardized college entrance exam administered by the American College Testing Program. Four separate, multiple-choice tests measure knowledge of English, math, reading, and science.  One optional writing test measures essay planning and writing skills. Most students take the ACT during their junior or senior year of high school, and most colleges and universities accept scores from either the ACT or SAT.

Associate’s Degree: An undergraduate degree awarded by a college or university upon successful completion of a program of study, usually requiring two years of full-time study. An associate’s is typically awarded by community colleges; it may be a career or technical degree, or it may be a transfer degree, allowing students to transfer those credits to a four-year bachelor’s degree-granting school.

Bachelors Degree: An undergraduate degree awarded by a college or university upon successful completion of a program of study, typically requiring at least four years (or the equivalent) of full-time study. Common degree types include Bachelor of Arts (B.A. or A.B.) which includes liberal arts studies, and Bachelor of Science (B.S.). A bachelor’s is required before starting graduate studies.

College: A postsecondary institution that typically provides only an undergraduate education, but in some cases, also graduate degrees. “College” is often used interchangeably with “university” and “school.” Separately, “college” can refer to an academic division of a university, such as College of Engineering.

Community college: A public, two-year postsecondary institution that offers the Associate’s degree. Also known as a “junior college.” Community colleges typically provide a transfer program, allowing students to transfer to a four-year school to complete their bachelor’s degree, and a career program, which provides students with a vocational degree.

Core requirements: Mandatory courses that students are required to complete to earn a degree.  Can also be called “general education requirements.”

Cost of Attendance: The total amount of money a student will need to attend a certain school for a year.  Cost of attendance includes tuition, fees, room and board, books, transportation, personal expenses, and other costs.  Some parts of the cost of attendance are paid to the school, and others are estimates of how much money a student should budget for themselves.

Course: A regularly scheduled class on a particular subject. Each college or university offers degree programs that consist of a specific number of required and elective courses.

Course load: The number of courses or credits a student takes during a specific term, usually a “quarter” or “semester.”

Credits: Units that a school uses to indicate that a student has completed and passed courses that are required for a degree. Each school defines the total number and types of credits necessary for degree completion, with every course being assigned a value in terms of “credits,” “credit hours,” or “units” that are based on how often the course meets, how much work is involved, or other variables.

Degree: A diploma or title awarded to students by a college or university after successful completion of a program of study.

Department: A division of a school, made up of faculty and support staff, that gives instruction in a particular field of study, such as the history department.

Discipline: An area of academic study.

Doctorate (Ph.D.): The highest academic degree awarded by a university upon successful completion of an advanced program of study, typically requiring at least three years of graduate study beyond the master’s degree (which may have been earned at a different university). Ph.D. candidates must demonstrate their mastery of a subject through oral and written exams and original, scholarly research presented in a dissertation.

Double major: A program of study that allows a student to complete the course requirements for two majors at the same time.

Early action: A program offered by some colleges and universities that allows students to submit their applications early, typically in November or December, and receive decisions early, usually in mid- or late December. Students are not required to accept the admissions offer and have until May 1 to decide if they will attend that or another college.

Early decision: A program offered by some colleges and universities that allows students to submit an application to their top-choice school early, typically in November or December, and receive the decision early, usually in mid- or late December. If accepted, students are required to enroll at that school and withdraw all applications to other schools. This makes early decision a “binding” agreement because students are locked into attending that school, if admitted.

EFC (Expected Family Contribution): The amount a student and their family are able to contribute to pay for their education, as determined by the government using information from the FAFSA.  Schools determine how much financial aid to provide based on their cost of attendance minus the EFC. ***The term EFC has been replaced by the term SAI when determining financial need.***

Faculty: A school’s teaching and administrative staff who is responsible for designing programs of study.  You may hear people talk about “the faculty” as a way to talk about all the professors, instructors, administrators, etc. as one group.

FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid): Application used by U.S. citizens and permanent residents to apply for financial aid from U.S. federal and state governments.  The FAFSA opens October 1 for high school seniors and college students.  Students are required to complete the FAFSA every year they want to continue receiving aid (i.e. every year except for their last year of college).

Financial aid: All types of money offered to a student to help pay tuition, fees and other educational expenses. This can include loans, grants, scholarships, and work-study jobs.

Financial need: A term describing whether a student’s family is able to pay for college on their own, or whether they will require financial need.  It is often used to describe “students with financial need,” meaning students who need any level of assistance paying for college.

Graduate school: The division of a college or university, or an independent postsecondary institution, which administers graduate studies and awards master’s degrees, doctorates, or graduate certificates.

Graduate student / graduate studies: A student who already holds an undergraduate degree (a Bachelor’s) and is pursuing advanced studies at a graduate school, leading to a master’s, doctorate or graduate certificate. A “graduate” (without saying “student” after) can also refer to any student who has successfully completed a program of study and earned a degree.

Grant: A type of financial aid that consists of an amount of free money given to a student, often by the federal or a state government, a company, a school, or a charity. A grant does not have to be repaid. “Grant” is often used interchangeably with “scholarship.”

Higher education: Any type of education that takes place after high school, or secondary school. (See “postsecondary.”).

Humanities: Academic courses focused on human life and ideas, including history, philosophy, foreign languages, religion, art, music, and literature.

Liberal arts: Academic studies of subjects in the arts, humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences, with a focus on general knowledge like verbal, written, and reasoning skills, in contrast to a professional or technical emphasis. “Liberal arts” is often used interchangeably with “liberal arts and sciences” or “arts and sciences.”

Liberal arts college: A postsecondary institution that emphasizes an undergraduate education in liberal arts. The majority of liberal arts colleges have small student bodies, do not offer graduate studies, and focus on faculty teaching rather than research.

Loan: A type of financial aid that consists of an amount of money that is given to someone for a period of time, with an agreement that it will be repaid later, usually with interest added.  There are many types of loans that may be offered to a student, and a student should think carefully about whether each loan option makes sense for them and their family.

Major: The academic subject area that a student chooses to focus on during his or her undergraduate studies. Students typically must officially choose their major by the end of their sophomore year, allowing them to take a number of courses specific to the chosen area during their junior and senior years.

Masters: A graduate degree awarded by a college or university upon successful completion of an advanced program of study, typically requiring one or two years of full-time study beyond the bachelor’s degree. Common degree types include Master of Arts (M.A.), which refers to the liberal arts; Master of Science (M.S.); and Master of Business Administration (M.B.A.).

MCAT (Medical College Admission Test): A standardized U.S. medical school entrance exam, which measures verbal reasoning, writing skills, and physical and biological sciences knowledge. The MCAT was revised in 2015 to also include questions about psychology and sociology.

Merit aid / merit scholarships: A type of financial aid awarded by a college or university to students who have demonstrated special academic ability or talents, regardless of their financial need. Most merit aid has specific requirements if students want to continue to receive it, such as maintaining a certain GPA.

Midterm exam: An exam given after half of the academic term has passed and that covers all material studied in a particular course until that point. Not all courses have midterm exams and some courses may have more than one at various points of the term.

Minor: An academic subject area that a student chooses to have a secondary focus on during their undergraduate studies. Unlike a major, a minor is typically not required, but it allows a student to take a few additional courses in a subject different from his or her major.

Need-based financial aid: Financial aid that is awarded to students due to their financial inability to pay the full cost of attending a specific college or university, rather than specifically because of their grades or other merit.

Need-blind admissions: A college or university’s policy of accepting or declining applications without considering an applicant’s financial circumstances. This policy does not necessarily mean that these schools will offer enough financial aid to meet a student’s full need.

Net price calculator: An online tool that allows students and families to calculate a personalized estimate of the cost of a specific college or university, after taking into account any scholarships or need-based financial aid that an applicant would receive.

Pass-fail: A grading system in which students receive either a “pass” or “fail” grade, rather than a specific score or letter grade. Certain college or university courses can be taken pass-fail, but these typically don›t include ones taken to fulfill major or minor requirements.

Ph.D.: A Doctor of Philosophy degree. (See “doctorate.”)

Plagiarism: The use of another person›s words or ideas as your own, without acknowledging (citing) that person. Schools have different policies and punishments for students caught plagiarizing, which tends to occur with research papers and other written assignments.

Postsecondary: Any type of education that takes place after high school, or secondary school. (See “higher education.”).

Prerequisite: A required course that must be completed before a student is allowed to enroll in a more advanced course or program.

Professional school: A higher education institution for students who have already received their undergraduate degree to gain training in specific professions, such as law, medicine and pharmacy.  Professional school is like graduate school, but with more career-specific programs.

Quarter: Period of study lasting approximately 10 weeks.  There are three quarters in the academic year (fall, winter, and spring), but some colleges offer courses during the summer quarter.

Registrar: The college or university official who is responsible for registering students and keeping their academic records, such as transcripts.  Questions about course registration, transcripts, etc. should be directed to the registrar.

Room and board: Housing and meals. “Room and board” is typically one of the costs that colleges and universities will list in their annual estimated cost of attendance, in addition to tuition, fees, and textbooks and supplies. If students choose to live in dormitories, they may be required to buy into a meal plan to use on-campus dining facilities.

SAI: Student Aid Index, or SAI, is the result of a student’s FAFSA form starting with the 2024-25 FAFSA.  The SAI is based on a student and parents’ income, assets, and family size and is used by colleges to determine how much aid they will offer you.

SAT: A standardized college entrance exam, which measures reading, writing and math skills. Most students take the SAT during their junior or senior year of high school, and most colleges and universities accept scores from either the SAT or ACT. In addition, students may choose to take the SAT Subject Tests in English, history, languages, math and science to demonstrate their knowledge in specific academic areas.

Scholarship: A type of financial aid that consists of an amount of free money given to a student by a school, individual, organization, company, charity, or federal or state government. “Scholarship” is often used interchangeably with “grant.”

Semester: Period of study lasting approximately 15 to 16 weeks.  There are two semesters in an academic year.

Seminar: A course offered to a small group of students who are typically more advanced and who meet with a professor to discuss specialized topics.

Syllabus: An outline of topics covered in an academic course.  A Syllabus usually also includes an overview of the assignments that will be due throughout the course.

TA (Teaching assistant): A graduate student who assists a professor with teaching an undergraduate course, usually within his or her field, as part of an assistantship.

Test-optional: A policy found at a growing number of colleges and university that allows students to submit applications for admission without including a standardized test score, like the SAT or ACT.  Test-optional schools will focus on the student’s academic transcript and other qualities instead of their standardized test score when deciding whether to admit the student.

Transcript: An official record of a student›s coursework and grades at a high school, college or university. A high school transcript is usually one of the required components of the college application process.

Transfer credit: Credit granted toward a degree on the basis of studies completed at another college or university. For instance, students who transfer from a community college to a four-year college may earn some transfer credit.

Tuition: An amount of money charged by a school per term, per course, or per credit, in exchange for instruction and training. Tuition generally does not include the cost of textbooks, room and board, and other fees.

Undergraduate student / undergraduate studies: A student enrolled in a two-year or four-year study program at a college or university after graduation from high school, leading to an associate or bachelor’s degree.

University: A postsecondary institution that typically offers both undergraduate and graduate degree programs. “University” is often used interchangeably with “college” and “school.”

Work-study: A financial aid program funded by the U.S. federal government that allows undergraduate or graduate students to work part time on campus or with approved off-campus employers. To participate in work-study, students must complete the FAFSA and be awarded work-study in their financial aid package.