What’s Your University Type?

A chat with a friend over a long debate on what constitutes a “top” university became an interesting exercise on classifying universities into different attributes, similar to marketers’ efforts to classify demographic sections into target markets.

Here are some we came up with:

Teaching Styles

Pure Academics concentrate on learning via reading and deep study & research through books. Their emphasis is on intellectualism and scholarship. Many claim that this is what good universities should be – based on classical learning. Some colleges, such as Reed College, are well-known for their “great books” education, where students learn through classical texts.

Researchers concentrate on learning through experimenting and research, emphasizing on discovery. Many pure science-based universities fall under this category, though there are also those in the social sciences that work a lot on research. The aim of the students there is to advance knowledge in their field, ultimately leading to publication or patents, or their work being utilized in some way.

Professionals emphasize on instruction that relates to career skills and professional development. Many business schools, as well as professional degrees such as law and accountancy, follow this model. While there is a lot of industry-specific instruction, there is also a strong emphasis on “soft” skills, such as communication, teamwork, and leadership. There is also a strong career support system, with activities such as mentoring, resume checks, and job searches.

Vocationals are a close cousin of the Professionals as they also have an emphasis on career goals. However, their approach is more towards “hard” skills – specific skills related to their job. Trade schools, such as culinary schools, mechanical schools, and some art schools with a craft emphasis, use this model. Apprenticeships are common, and diplomas and certificates are more common than degrees.

Creatives concentrate on new (and often artistic) work being made through instruction in the arts. This is the model of the typical “art school”, though there are other types of schools that have a creative aspect. Originality and expression is emphasized, and usually there is a non-orthodox method of assessment. These schools tend to be smaller in size, allowing for personal interaction.

Real-Worlders concentrate on making their education relevant to the world outside school and connect their instruction to current issues and events. Often a lot of the student work is project-based, with real-world connections, such as working with a company to manage their business or organizing community events. Internships and opportunities for nontraditional education, such as study abroad and conferences, are usually provided.

Independents act more like a facilitator of instruction – while they do offer classes, their emphasis is on allowing the student to decide their own mode of learning. Students often work with mentors or facilitators to decide their course of study, make use of all the resources available to them, and check up with their facilitator or mentor on their progress. New York University’s Gallatin and Hampshire College are good examples of these.


Traditionals focus more on grades and scores. Exams and papers are the main modes of assessment, though nowadays there is a growing use of project work. While personal evaluations are available, they are either rare or very short and on the surface.

Non-Traditionals focus more on evaluations. While there may be exams, and a slightly higher number of papers, project work is more common and grades are rarely awarded. Evalutations are often personal and in-depth, describing the student’s work and their progress individually.

Extra Curriculars

Study Schools don’t place a lot of importance on extracurricular activities. While there are clubs, the focus is on study, and clubs do not get a lot of activity. There doesn’t seem to be many universities that follow this model.

Party Schools are a common model used to denote universities whose students are often partying and/or drinking. The term is often derogatory, though there are some that take pride in being part of a “party school”. These schools often have a strong alcohol culture and are stereotyped as the total opposite of a Study School.

Clubbers, despite the name, aren’t a cousin to Party Schools. Instead, they are usually rich with extracurricular activity, with plenty of clubs and societies to suit any student’s interest. Everything from Amnesty International to the Chocolatier’s Club to secret societies is represented here. There is often high student involvement in and out of school, including Student Government and intercollege meets.

Sportstars take pride in their sporting teams, some of which reach national levels. Through sports, they encourage school spirit, with students following their teams to every game. There are often scholarships and other financial opportunities given to students that show sporting talent.

Activists have a strong politically-aware student base that advocates for certain causes and fights back against oppression and injustice. The common stereotypes are student protests and rallies; however, most of them work through volunteering and awareness programs, as well as forming or being part of community projects. Generally they are liberal and left-wing; however, there is also growing right-wing action and participation.

Alternatives tend to have unusual and unorthodox student bodies and student activities. Many of their students are “artsy”, and often they fall into subcultures, such as Goths, punks, or other alternative lifestyles. The environment allows for free association and expression and is not usually judgmental of student choices. Many minority groups, such as GLBT people and those in minority religions, tend to be part of these schools.

Other Factors

Prestiges are the stereotypical “top university”; they have garnered a name for being “best of the best” and plenty of people scramble to be accepted. Many advocate being accepted into these universities as they have better reputations and would allow for many privileges, such as easier employability. However, the notion of prestige with universities has been called into question.

Hyped-Ups on the surface seem to be similar to the Prestiges; however, unlike the Prestiges, they are often criticized for being all style and no substance. These places excel at marketing, going all out to promote themselves as a worthy place of learning, but do not back that up in their actual operations. They tend to be run as a business, focusing on profits.

Diversities aim to have a very varied student body, often giving opportunities and support to minority groups. There are also a lot of activities dedicated towards encouraging diversity and tolerance. Diversity here doesn’t just refer to race or nationality – it also covers religion, wealth, background, preferences, sexual orientation, status, political views, opinions, and so on.

High-Standards place high admissions requirements on prospective students, giving them an air or exclusivity and elite-ness. Many argue that the mark of a “top” university is its strict admissions requirements; however, with the debate over standardized tests and assessments in general, this has also come into question.

Newsmakers are known for various incidents that take place on campus. This can range from the positive (University of Queensland’s role in developing a vaccine for cervical cancer) to the negative (Duke University’s “Lacrosse Incident”, where a woman was alleged to have been raped by Duke lacrosse players). Sometimes their reputation is forever affected by these news, and sometimes the universities make use of their newsworthy events to promote themselves and admit new students.

Alumni-Links tend to have their fame and reputation connected with famous alumni (or near-alumni). For example, Yale has often been mentioned (positively or negatively) in connection with US President George W. Bush, while Bill Gates is well-known for dropping out of Harvard. In more specific circles, certain universities can receive publicity and recognition for the work of their alumni and faculty in the field.

Most universities tend to have a combination of one or more factors; rarely will you see a university that fully exemplifies only one factor, or one that has a balance of all the factors (especially since some of them cancel each other out). Picking a good university, and trying to decide what a “top university” is, involves more factors than it seems.

What other ways can we classify universities? How do we decide which factors are best? Can there be an objective measure for seemingly subjective criteria?

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