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In the United States and Canada the terms college and university can describe a variety of institutions. A college may form one major division of a university, offering programs in a specific academic field that lead to undergraduate or graduate degrees, or both. Colleges may also be independent of a university, offering four-year programs of general education that lead to a bachelor's degree in the liberal arts and sciences. Some independent colleges offer a limited number of graduate programs, but usually their primary mission is to provide undergraduate education. Community colleges offer two-year programs of general education or vocational education.

Universities generally comprise various colleges and professional schools that make up the academic divisions of the institution. For example, a university may include a college of arts and sciences in addition to professional schools of education, law, medicine, and engineering. Universities provide higher education leading to a bachelor's degree as well as professional and graduate programs leading to master's and doctoral degrees. Colleges and universities in the United States and Canada may be public institutions supported by federal, state, provincial, or municipal governments, or they may be private (independent) institutions.

The most prominent types of colleges and universities in the United States and Canada include community colleges, state or provincial universities, liberal arts colleges, professional schools, military academies, and proprietary institutions. Other types include technical colleges, agricultural colleges, teachers' colleges, and colleges affiliated with religions.

Community colleges typically offer the first two years of general undergraduate education. Most also offer adult educational programs, vocational education, and technical training. Community colleges confer associate degrees for successful completion of most two-year programs. Many students in community colleges complete the first two years of their college education in these institutions and then transfer the credits to a four-year college. Other community college students pursue vocational, technical, and other preprofessional programs. Because community colleges typically have lower tuition rates than four-year colleges and universities, they offer significant advantages to many students.

Aside from a few four-year colleges supported by municipal governments or the federal government, most public colleges and universities in the United States are state institutions. In most cases, state boards of higher education provide funds for these schools and oversee their programs of instruction. Most state governments establish systems of higher education, such as the State University of New York System or the University of California System, which comprise groups of interconnected college or university campuses.

State colleges and universities have diverse origins. Although some four-year institutions were originally established as state colleges and universities, many originated in the early 19th century as two-year teacher-training institutions known as normal schools. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries these schools were reorganized and expanded into four-year teachers' colleges. Later in the 20th century, another reorganization changed many teachers' colleges into comprehensive colleges and universities that offer a wide range of academic programs. Many other state educational institutions are land-grant colleges, established with funds from the Morrill Acts of 1862 and 1890. These institutions were originally founded to offer education in agriculture, science, and engineering, but most later expanded their curriculums to become large multipurpose universities.

Federally supported higher education in the United States is mainly associated with branches of the armed services. Federal military colleges include the United States Military Academy in West Point, New York; the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland; and the United States Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado. These institutions provide comprehensive undergraduate programs in addition to defense training for prospective military officers. The federal government also operates the United States Coast Guard Academy in New London, Connecticut, and the United States Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point, New York.

In Canada, provincial governments establish boards of higher education responsible for allocating funds to provincial universities and overseeing their programs of instruction. In addition, the federal and provincial governments provide substantial funds for all institutions of higher education, including private colleges and universities. This public funding dramatically reduces costs for students.

Independent colleges and universities are private, nonprofit institutions. Many independent colleges and universities originated as church-related institutions, although a majority of these are no longer affiliated with religious groups. The most common independent colleges and universities include (1) liberal arts institutions that offer comprehensive undergraduate education, (2) technical or specialized institutions that prepare students in engineering, performing arts, music, nursing and other fields, and (3) large universities that include undergraduate programs in addition to graduate and professional schools.

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