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What is Higher Education?

Tricia Christensen
Updated Mar 02, 2024
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There is some disagreement in the definitions of higher education. Some define it purely as education that will result in a college degree, at least an associate’s degree. Others believe it is the pursuit of any education at levels where attendance is voluntary. This doesn’t typically mean high school in places like the US, although there are voluntary high school dropouts. It usually means education from a school that offers post-secondary education.

It should be noted that the definition of higher education could vary from country to country. Not all countries have compulsory education equivalent to what a person might get in an American high school. Some countries have little to no public schooling available and any education is for the privileged few instead of for almost all. Studying at high school level may not be compulsory in many countries, and some limit public schooling to a much younger age.

Essentially, the term higher education can be broadly defined. In most of the Western world, it is viewed as post-secondary school education undertaken on a voluntary basis. This could mean studying at a university, taking a certificate class at a community college, or attending a vocational or trade school. Whether people want to become licensed vocational nurses or college professors of mathematics, they usually undertake higher education training at one of these institutions. Some trade schools may not even require secondary school completion or diplomas.

Higher education is seldom compulsory. Not everyone needs to go to college or trade school, and few countries make this education mandatory. However, many people find they are not adequately trained to enter the work force without additional information and skills. This can make participating in a higher learning institute extremely desirable.

A bit of confusion can now exist in many high schools that offer advanced placement (AP) courses. These may be taken by the most capable students who can handle a deeper level of exploration of material. Should these students pass the class and pass requisite exams, they may receive college credits. They are pursuing their “lower education” degree in the form of a diploma, at the same time they’ve already started studying at a higher education level.

Not all schools have AP programs, but this doesn’t mean a student can’t concurrently pursue a diploma and college credits at the same time. Many students are eligible to start taking community college courses by their sophomore or junior year in high school. The process can work backward too. It is possible in my colleges to get credit for taking college classes to qualify for a high school diploma. Some students who prefer the college environment may finish their secondary school requirements at a community college after dropping out of high school, and their work may count as both higher and secondary education.

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Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Practical Adult Insights contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.
Discussion Comments
By anon978339 — On Nov 17, 2014

@comfyshoes and Sunny27- Good points about community college being cheaper! However, I wanted to clarify a few things about the price of private colleges (and four year colleges in general).

I work at a college access program where we work directly with high school students. One thing that I always highlight to my students is that there is a difference between sticker price and net price. Sticker price is what the school says is their cost to attend and net price being what families will pay after their financial aid. Many private schools have great funding so it usually turns out to be nowhere near the sticker price! With that being said, I also always highly encourage students to apply to a mix of private and public four year schools.

I'd also like to point out that although an associate's degree is cheaper to obtain, the amount of money one makes afterwards with that degree, on average, will be lower than someone who graduates with a bachelor's degree. In fact, there has been a study done to show that in the long run, people are essentially getting paid to go to college.

With all of that being said, I think money determines a lot of our lives and it really shouldn't. What's most important is that students find the right fit for them and pursue whatever will help them excel and be successful in school and afterwards.

By comfyshoes — On Jul 05, 2010

Sunny27- I love anything that reduces the cost of a college education. Even if your child enrolled in the dual degree program from a private school, the costs of community college are significantly less than a regular university.

Community colleges offer reasonable tuition rates that many parents would gladly pay. With some private universities costing over $100,000 for a four year degree, this program not only saves a parent a lot of money, but encourages the student to seek a more rigorous education with a huge reward at the end of the program.

By Sunny27 — On Jul 05, 2010

Good article. I want to say that with the high cost of a college education, many high performing high school students enroll in a community college and graduate high school with a high school diploma as well as an Associates of Arts degree.

Usually community colleges have agreements with public high schools and student attending those schools often enroll for free at the community college. Private school students do not get tuition waivers, however.

I think it’s a great idea and more students should strive for such goals. It also reduces the costs of a college education and gives the high school student a huge head start in the academic career.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Practical Adult Insights contributor...
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