Colleges and Majors: The Program Hierarchy

Every university system has a pyramid that begins with very large, broad entities that then breaks down into more specific programs and departments. This article will explain how all of this works.

By Xavier Royer — January 24, 2023


Colleges and Majors: The Program Hierarchy

This article falls into a genre that is slowly becoming one of my favorites. I find great value in explaining the concepts in higher education that no one ever tells students and, at some point, they just expected to know. This article will explain one concept: the university and program hierarchy.

Every university system has a pyramid that begins with very large, broad entities that then breaks down into more specific programs and departments. This article will explain how all of this works. This is far from the most groundbreaking article readers will find in this library. However, this was something that was unclear to me for a very long time that would have made understanding things as a student easier. If I was confused, others might be as well.

The University System, the University, and Colleges

Not all universities are part of a system, but they do exist. University systems are a collection of universities that work together and share resources. This is most commonly done with large state schools. For example, the University of Nebraska system encompasses the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, University of Nebraska-Omaha, University of Nebraska-Kearney, and University of Nebraska Medical Center. The universities operate mostly independently with their tuitions, reputations, sports teams, strengths, and weaknesses. However, they are united in much of their funding sources (namely the state of Nebraska) and occasionally collaborate with their programs. These are separate from athletic conferences, even though those schools may collaborate similarly.

College vs. University

The university is the name of the entire institution. Though the words are often interchangeable in casual conversation, college and university are not the same. Rather, a university consists of different colleges. A single university will usually have a few colleges, each with its specialization. Villanova University, for example, is made up of the colleges of Liberal Arts and Science, Engineering, Nursing, and Professional Studies, as well as the "schools" of Business and Law. "Schools" are sometimes used instead of college, but most intents and purposes are interchangeable with colleges. Some colleges will work more independently than others, mainly if they are not serving a traditional undergraduate population or have a specific specialization. Graduate, Nursing, Law, and Medical schools or colleges usually fit this criterion and are judged more individually than the rest of the institution.

College Departments

Within a college are departments that group faculty and programs while typically sharing a physical space. The amount of variety in expertise depends on the department. My home discipline of Political Science has three or four subdisciplines. A large department should have a few faculty members with expertise in each. Smaller universities may have different department designs. William Penn University, where I currently teach, has "divisions" instead of departments. Social and Behavioral Sciences include Political Science, Sociology, Psychology, Religion, History, and the newly added Human Services. The department is an excellent hub for students—when recalling my undergrad experience, there are many times an opportunity opened up, or a memory was made just because I randomly dropped by the department.

Departments' Programs and Majors

Within each department are programs, majors, and minors. Majors and minors are what students will be most familiar. Majors represent the field or fields a student pursues their degree "in." It dictates the classes a student will need to take and sets the standard for what a student will have to know and the skills they will need to develop before graduation. For example, an economics major will need to know at least some basic math, have an understanding of how markets work, and be able to use that information in meaningful ways. Nursing students' coursework will involve traditional life sciences coursework and practical skills like using syringes and taking blood pressure. Minors are designed to be "tacked on" a major and usually consist of a smaller suite of necessary courses. The purpose of a minor is to allow students to become further well-ounded. It is also possible to double-major and complete two majors. Some majors lend themselves to this more than others.

This article clears up the nomenclature among the different institution levels in the university pyramid. This clarification is beneficial when researching potential universities and understanding what reputations correspond with how much of a university.

Xavier Royer

Xavier Royer

I am currently a full time instructor at a William Penn University, a small private university in Iowa. I am the lone political science faculty member there. In my time teaching, I have already connected with an incredible cohort of students in ways I could never have expected. Partnering with SAGE will allow me the opportunity to help even more students across the globe navigate those tricky questions.
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