Most colleges and universities are undergraduate schools. They are schools that are attended on a voluntary basis, after the mandatory schooling of the public school system is completed.
In undergraduate schools, students choose from a variety of programs they'd like to study instead of following the requirements meted out by their state's board of education. Of course, the curriculum of every undergraduate school is regulated by the same board of education but the student has a little more leeway in choosing his or her course of studies.
The mandatory public school system is chartered with providing a foundational base of knowledge that the high school graduate can use in the job market after graduation or can expand and specialize in college or university studies.
As a rule, undergraduate schools award baccalaureate degrees (BA or BS), indicating a course of study that lasts approximately four years. This course of study allows the student the working knowledge to begin a career in a more specialized way than the high school graduate who chose not to attend college at all.
Graduating from undergraduate schools often brings a higher rate of pay and easier jobs than graduating from high school alone and entering the workforce armed with a high school diploma. An education that stops at the high school level usually qualifies the graduate for entry-level jobs that involve physical labor, low pay, and little opportunity for advancement.
Some undergraduate schools also offer associate's degrees, which are usually one- or two-year programs that focus more on a specific vocational topic and less on a well-rounded academic education. Associate's degrees are often awarded to graduates of trade and technical schools but many colleges and universities offer associate's degrees, too.
And where does the "under" in the undergraduate schools come from? Once all coursework is completed, in whatever field of study the student selects, he or she earns a bachelor's degree, the first step toward enrollment in graduate school.
That's right, there's still plenty of opportunity to continue formal studies even after a bachelor's degree is earned. Graduate school consists of the programs involved in earning a master's degree and onward to a doctorate degree, too.