The Ultimate Glossary of College Terminology

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CBE. Tenure. Stafford Loans. Dissertations. Matriculation.

If you’re not familiar with the world of higher education, the terms and jargon can be practically a whole new language to learn and contend with. If you’re feeling a bit lost, don’t let that get you down. We’ve created a massive college term glossary to help you navigate the college landscape.

Consider this your first college course. While there aren’t any pop quizzes coming, you’ll definitely want to study up on this collection of college terminology so you can confidently take the next step in your education.

College terms you need to know

College terminology can cover a ton of ground. To help narrow down your search, we broke these terms down into several categories. Click on a category below that interests you to jump to that section.

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  1. Adult learner: This term typically refers to an older student who usually has experience in the workforce and didn’t necessarily attend college right after high school.
  2. Campus: The physical buildings and grounds owned by a college or university.
  3. Career services: A student resource department that helps students and alumni job-search, develop resumes, give interviews and network.
  4. Cohort: A group of students working through a curriculum together towards the same degree.
  5. College vs. university: Colleges are generally smaller institutions that focus on undergraduate education while universities are typically larger institutions that offer a greater number of graduate degree options.
  6. Commencement: A formal graduation ceremony that celebrates recent graduates of the institution with their family and friends.
  7. Continuing education: This typically refers to part-time formal education for working adults. Oftentimes professional certifications may require continuing education credit—though not all necessarily require college coursework.
  8. Dormitories: Campus housing where full-time students live within close distance of the academic buildings.
  9. First-generation student: A college student who is the first in their family to go to college.
  10. Fraternities and sororities: Social and academic organizations for college students formed to pursue a common goal or ideals. Most are identified by letters of the Greek alphabet (Alpha, Beta, Gamma, etc.) and as whole comprise a school’s Greek life.
  11. Gainful employment: A regulation that requires for-profit college programs to prepare graduates for gainful employment in a recognized occupation in order to receive federal funding.
  12. Higher education: Refers to any formal schooling after high school.
  13. Orientation: Time at the beginning of a school year that serves as a training period for new students. Typically includes activities or courses intended to help students get to know the institution and how to use available resources.
  14. Post-secondary: Any education, whether degree-seeking or not, pursued after high school.
  15. Private college vs. public college: Public colleges and universities are funded by state governments while private colleges and universities are not publicly-owned, often relying on tuition payments and private contributions to operate.
  16. Provost: Sometimes called the vice president of academic affairs, a provost is a senior academic administrator who works closely with academic deans, department deans and faculty to ensure the quality of academic programs.
  17. Registrar: A specialist tasked with handling several administrative and logistical areas of academia. The registrar’s office is responsible for many administrative academic duties like registering students for classes, preparing student transcripts, preparing class schedules and analyzing enrollment statistics.
  18. Student handbook: A student’s primary resource on their school’s academic policies, disciplinary procures, student expectations and information about financial aid and other student services.
  19. Tenure: Employment track for professors that essentially guarantees a permanent position at the institution (barring termination for cause or financial insolvency).
  20. Terms vs. quarters vs. semesters: The academic year is often divided into terms—most commonly in the form of semesters or quarters. Semesters typically include a fall and spring semester and summer session that may be shorter. Quarters divide the year into four terms—each usually 10 or 11 weeks.
  21. Traditional vs. nontraditional student: Traditional students generally attend college right after high school, are financially dependent on parents and attend full-time. While there’s no set-in stone definition, “nontraditional student” typically refers to adult students (usually 25 or older) who either work full time, are financially independent, have children or attend college part-time.
  22. Work-study program:Work-study programs help college students with financial need get part-time jobs to help pay for day-to-day expenses and tuition payments. Work-study jobs are federally- or state-funded.

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  23.  Academic advisor: Academic advisors are staff members assigned to students in their department. They help students choose majors and minors, design a course of study and help ensure students fulfill graduation requirements.
  24. Accelerated program: Programs designed to help students graduate sooner. Accelerated programs often include more stringent admission requirements and summer courses.
  25. Add/drop period: Time frame when students can drop or add courses to their course load without consequences, including incomplete marks on their transcript.
  26. Adjunct faculty/professor: Adjunct professors work as independent contractors who teach a limited number of classes, as opposed to full-time faculty.
  27. Associate's degree: Undergraduate degree that generally requires two years of full-time study.
  28. Audit: When taking an “audit” course, students attend a class they are interested in without being required to complete assignments or take tests—giving them a chance to learn the material but not for credit.
  29. Bachelor's degree: Undergraduate degree that generally requires four years of full-time study. Students must declare a major in a particular field of study and choose a Bachelor of Arts or Bachelor of Science degree path.
  30. Competency-Based Education (CBE): Method of instruction and evaluation based more on the students’ mastery of the material than time spent in seat. CBE allows students to show what they know either from independent learning, classroom learning or experiences in the field. See our article, “What Is Competency-Based Education? A Beginner’s Guide for Students” for a more in-depth look.
  31. Certification: A non-degree credential that proves knowledge or skill in a specific area. Valued credentials vary by industry and job title.
  32. Class rank: Refers to a student’s standing in comparison with their classmates. It’s often determined by grade point averages and is expressed as a percentile.
  33. Clinical education: Often referred to as clinicals, these programs allow students to practice their skills under supervision of a practitioner. Clinical education is most common in the healthcare field.
  34. Course catalog: A college publication that describes academic programs, their majors and minors, and required courses and their contents.
  35. Core courses: Include fundamental classes like English, math, general science and history that provide a foundation for major-specific classes. The exact class requirements may vary depending on your major. Core courses may also be referred to as general education courses.
  36. Course load: This refers to the total amount of courses a student is taking per term.
  37. Credit for prior learning: College credit granted to students who can demonstrate knowledge gained outside of a traditional college setting that is used to satisfy course requirements. Examples can include work and life experience, independent study or industry certifications.
  38. Credits: A measure of a class’s time based on how many hours students spend in class, but specific numbers largely depend on the institution.
  39. Curriculum: The knowledge, skills, lectures, assignments, tests and presentations that make up a course. It may also refer more broadly to the courses that make up a major or academic program.
  40. Department: Academic division specializing in an area of study like Nursing, English, Engineering or Biology.
  41. Department chair: Educator assigned to manage an academic department. They unite the department and act as a liaison between the department and college administration.
  42. Didactic learning: This teaching method focuses on improving students’ foundational knowledge one lesson at a time with teacher-directed lessons.
  43. Dissertation: The completed thesis of a doctoral student. A long document of research and findings required to earn a doctorate.
  44. Doctoral degree: The most advanced academic degree in most fields. Provides the graduate a high level of expertise and greater options for research, writing, teaching and management within their specialty.
  45. Electives: Classes students choose to fulfill a general education requirement or just because they’re interested a topic outside of their major’s core courses.
  46. Faculty: Academic staff including professors, both full-time and adjunct.
  47. Final exam: Test taken at the end of a course that usually includes subject matter from the entire course.
  48. General education courses: Curriculum that creates the foundation of an undergraduate degree. It generally includes lower-level courses in English, Mathematics, Natural Sciences and Social Sciences.
  49. Grade point average (GPA): Represents the average of a student’s final grades in all their courses. It’s calculated by adding the final grades divided by the number of credit hours, though some classes may be weighted or measured on a different scale.
  50. Grading scale: System in which letter grades are awarded a grade point or number to help calculate GPA.
  51. Hybrid degree: Also called a blended degree, hybrid programs combine traditional learning on campus with online components.
  52. Internship vs. externship: Both are experience building opportunities for students and the terms are often used interchangeably. That said, internships can take the form of paid opportunities to work in their fields in a low-level role for an employer. Externships typically aren’t paid, are shorter and are often a form of job shadowing. For example, student nurses complete clinical externships under the supervision of established nurses.
  53. Lecture: Oral presentation given by a professor to educate students. Sometimes this can refer to a class format that doesn’t require lab-work hours.
  54. Liberal Arts: Interdisciplinary study of humanities, social and natural sciences meant to give students a broad spectrum of knowledge.
  55. Matriculate: A matriculated student is admitted, registered for classes and in good academic standing at a college or university.
  56. Master's degree: A graduate-level degree pursued after completing a bachelor’s degree program. A master’s degree requires a year and a half to two years of full-time study and a high-level of mastery in a specific field at the completion of the program.
  57. Midterm: An exam given approximately halfway through a course term that generally covers all lecture, reading and discussion material presented so far.
  58. Minor: A secondary focus meant to add to the value to the student’s major. A minor consists of the lower-level courses required for a major in the same discipline. For example a Business major with a minor in Spanish will be required to complete a certain number of lower-level Spanish courses—which are typically the same lower-level Spanish courses as those pursuing it as a major.
  59. Pass-fail course: Instead of receiving a letter grade, students receive either a P or F on their transcript. Requirements for passing will vary depending on the course.
  60. Plagiarism: Taking credit for someone else’s work as your own including copying words, sentence structure or ideas. Plagiarism has very grave consequences in higher education.
  61. Postgraduate education: Includes higher education completed after an undergraduate degree. This includes master’s degrees and doctorate degrees.
  62. Practicum: Practical application of theory learned in the classroom. Often a requirement for programs in Education, Social Work or other clinician fields.
  63. Prerequisites: Courses required to take more advanced courses or apply to a program.
  64. Probation: Academic probation means a student has fallen from good standing status and is at risk of being dismissed from the university. Institutions measure academic standing by GPA and courses passed. Policies regarding this will vary depending on the institution.
  65. Professional certificate: Certification earned outside of an academic degree program to increase specific skills or knowledge to help keep professionals current on industry trends, technology and other topics.
  66. Programmatic accreditation: Accreditation granted to academic programs, departments or entire schools within a university used as an independent validation of academic quality and is often tied to professional licensure exam requirements.
  67. Registration: Process of reserving a spot in specific classes for enrolled students.
  68. Seminar course: A course based on reading, research and group discussion. Seminar courses are typically smaller, led by professors and cover advanced topics.
  69. Synchronous learning: Online classroom format where students learn together at the same time and can engage with classmates and instructors via chat rooms and video conferencing.
  70. Thesis: An extensive research paper created as part of an academic program—typically at the graduate degree level.
  71. Transcript: Official record of courses taken and grades earned at a given institution.
  72. Transfer credits: Course credits carried over from one institution to another.
  73. Tutors: A more experienced student or teacher who offers one-and-one academic help usually in a specific subject.
  74. Undecided or undeclared: A student enrolled in courses but has not yet declared a major.
  75. Waitlist: A term commonly seen during registration periods. Students hoping to enroll in a full class can opt to be placed on a waitlist. This essentially saves a place in line in case spots open up from registered students dropping or changing plans.
  76. Withdraw: To drop a class after the add/drop grace period. Withdrawing often means receiving a W on your transcript. 

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  77. Assistantship: Most common at graduate level, assistantships give students the opportunity to earn tuition reimbursement by working for faculty members in their area of study.
  78. Employer education assistance benefit: A benefit some employers offer that may cover some or all of student education expenses. Details will vary depending on employer—some may have stipulations to remain eligible for the benefit.
  79. FASFA: Stands for Free Application for Federal Student Aid. A document prospective students complete to determine eligibility for federal loans and grants.
  80. Federal grants vs. state grants: Grants are need-based forms of financial aid that do not need to be repaid. Federal grants are awarded through the FASFA. State grants are awarded through the student’s home state and usually have different eligibility requirements than that of the FASFA.
  81. Income-driven repayment plan: A loan repayment plan where monthly payments are based on the bower’s income and number of dependents.
  82. Net price: Calculated by taking the “sticker price” for tuition, room and board and other fees, and subtracting any scholarships and grants the student is receiving.
  83. Room and board: Term for charges stemming from on-campus food services and housing.
  84. Scholarship: An award given by a college, university or outside institution to help a student pay for tuition or day-to-day expenses. Criteria varies depending on individual scholarships.
  85. Stafford loan: A direct federal loan with fixed interest rates.
  86. Subscription-based pricing: As opposed to per-credit pricing, subscription-based pricing allows students to take as many courses as they can in a set period of time, usually per semester.
  87. Subsidized vs. unsubsidized loan: If a student receives a subsidized loan, the U.S Department of Education pays all interest accrued during school, the 6-month grace period and deferment. Students with unsubsidized loans must pay interest either while in school or have the accrued interest added to the principal loan balance.
  88. Tuition: The core
    price for college classes. Tuition may be listed as a flat rate for a range of credits, usually 12-18, or priced per credit. 

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  89. ACT: The American College Test is a standardized test that estimates a student’s readiness for college coursework. Either the ACT or SAT is required for many college and university applications—but it’s not a universal requirement.
  90. AP classes: Advanced Placement courses are college-level courses taught in high school. Scoring well on the AP exam can mean receiving credit for introductory college courses.
  91. Common application: A platform that allows students to apply to almost 900 schools in a streamlined way.
  92. Early action vs. early decision: Both early action and early decision allow college applicants to apply earlier and find out the results sooner. Generally, students can apply to as many schools as they’d like with early action. But if you apply early decision and are accepted, you must enroll in that school.
  93. Entrance requirements: Also called admission requirements, many colleges require applicants to submit an application, transcripts, and standardized test scores among other materials. Not to be confused with prerequisites.
  94. GRE: The Graduate Record Examinations is the most common standardized test required to apply for graduate programs.
  95. Placement test: Some colleges administer placements tests in subjects like math and English to check the academic skills of new students so they can properly place them in the right courses.
  96. Priority date: The date by which prospective students must submit their applications to be most strongly considered, usually for admissions and scholarships.
  97. PSAT: The Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test acts as both a practice test for students who will be taking the SAT for college admissions and as a way for the Collage Board to determine National Merit Scholarship Finalists.
  98. Regular decision: The most common timeline for college admissions. For regular decision, most schools require prospective students to apply by early January so applicants can hear back by April 1st.
  99. Rolling admission: Admissions departments who work on a rolling deadline evaluate applications as they receive them instead of waiting till a deadline. Students tend to hear back within 4-6 weeks.
  100. SAT: The Scholastic Aptitude Test is a standardized test that measures college preparedness. Either the ACT or SAT is required for many colleges’ and universities’ applications.
  101. TOEFL: The Test of English as a Foreign Language is the standardized test for non-native speakers of English applying to American colleges and universities among other institutions.

  102. Waitlisted: Admissions status that is neither an offer nor rejection. Waitlisted students may be accepted to the college or university at a later time. 

  103. Bachelor-completer: A Rasmussen University program designed to help adult students who already have college credits earn their bachelor’s degree sooner with simple credit transfer, credit for prior learning and accelerated course offerings.
  104. Campus director: At each Rasmussen University campus, a campus director oversees the business and daily operations of campus staff.
  105. Change a Life Scholarship:A scholarship of up to $500 for qualified applicants available to new, prospective students referred by a current student or alumnus of Rasmussen University.1
  106. Entrance option: A term used for the specific path a student takes toward earning a degree. Entrance options vary depending on previous education experience and your goals. For example, the Rasmussen University Nursing Program offers several entrance options, including—acceleratedsecond degree and RN-to-BSN
  107. Empowered Learning™A comprehensive term that refers to Rasmussen University’s approach to online competency-based education, which allows you to learn by doing real-world projects, manage your pace, and stay connected with faculty and peers.
  108. Knowledge Credit™: An overarching term for the variety of ways Rasmussen University students can potentially save time and money by demonstrating what they already know. This includes transfer credits, military training, professional certifications and self-directed assessments.
  109. JobConnect: A resource provided to Rasmussen University students used for finding job listings, employers and career fairs specially targeted to recent graduates.
  110. Library and Learning Services: A department of Rasmussen University that offers a variety of helpful academic resources like live chats, writing guides, webinars and more.
  111. Library Chat: An online research resource service provided by Rasmussen University’s Library and Learning Services (LLS) department. Allows students to chat with LLS professionals when seeking help with basic research, formatting and writing questions.
  112. NoodleTools: This Library and Learning Services offering is an online citation tool available to Rasmussen University students.
  113. Hiration: A resume and cover letter tool available to Rasmussen University students and alumni to give them an edge in the job-search process.
  114. Personal Support Center: Available to help with any technical difficulties from software installation to online courses access to password rests and other troubleshooting problems.
  115. Admissions Advisor: At Rasmussen University, academic advisors are the go-to admissions staff members for prospective students or applicants. They help guide prospective students through the process and answer questions they may have along the way.
  116. Research appointment: Rasmussen University students can make a research appointment with a librarian in their respective school of study to help them use the online databases or format a research paper.
  117. Self-directed assessment: A “test-out” opportunity where students independently complete an online course module. These assessments are taken in place of traditional full semester courses and are only $149 per attempt—which provides an opportunity for students to save time and money for subjects they'll need to spend more time on.
  118. Virtual Career Fair: An online career fair that allows students to network with employers and career development professionals as well as attend career workshops all free of charge.
  119. Writing Guide: An expansive resource for Rasmussen University students that can help them write discussion posts, research papers, format citations and develop presentations among other documents. Students can work with student tutors or librarians to get papers reviewed and get assistance when using the available tools.

Feeling college ready?

Phew! You made it through the glossary. But guess what? There’s even more to know about higher education, specifically about Rasmussen University. If you’re interested in learning more about what Rasmussen University offers specifically, check out our article, “11 Surprising Student Resources You Didn’t Know Rasmussen University Offered.

1Program availability varies by state and campus. This scholarship is limited to a maximum amount of $500 applied at a rate of $125 per quarter for a maximum of 4 quarters. If the scholarship recipient transfers in credits from a previous college and has less than 4 quarters, the scholarship will terminate at the completion of the student’s program. Additionally, if the student enrolls in a program requiring less than 4 quarters of study, the scholarship will terminate at the completion of the program. See for additional terms and conditions.

About the author

Kirsten Slyter

Kirsten is a Content Writer at Collegis Education where she enjoys researching and writing on behalf of Rasmussen University. She understands the difference that education can make and hopes to inspire readers at every stage of their education journey.


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