Higher education is an educational level that follows a completion of a school providing a secondary education, such as a high school, secondary school, or gymnasium. Tertiary education is normally taken to include undergraduate and postgraduate education, as well as vocational education and training. Colleges, universities, and institutes of technology are the main institutions that provide tertiary education (sometimes known collectively as tertiary institutions). Examples of institutions that provide post-secondary education are vocational schools, community colleges, independent colleges (e.g. institutes of technology), and universities in the United States, the institutes of technical and further education in Australia, pre-university colleges in Quebec, and the IEKs in Greece. They are sometimes known collectively as tertiary institutions. Completion of a tertiary education program of study generally results in the awarding of certificates, diplomas, or academic degrees.
Rupert I founded the University of Heidelberg in 1386
Higher education includes teaching, research, exacting applied work (e.g. in medical schools and dental schools), and social services activities of universities. Within the realm of teaching, it includes both the undergraduate level, and beyond that, graduate-level (or postgraduate level). The latter level of education is often referred to as graduate school, especially in North America.
In many developed countries, a high proportion of the population (up to 50%), now enter higher education at some time in their lives. Higher education is therefore very important to national economies, both as a significant industry in its own right and as a source of trained and educated personnel for the rest of the economy. College educated workers command a significant wage premium and are much less likely to become unemployed than less educated workers.
There are two types of higher education in the U.K.: higher academic education, and higher vocational education. Higher education in the United States and Canada specifically refers to post-secondary institutions that offer Associate's degrees, Bachelor's degrees, Master's degrees, Education Specialist (Ed.S.) degrees or Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) degrees, or their equivalents, and also higher professional degrees in areas such as law, medicine, optometry, and dentistry.
Such institutions may also offer non-degree certificates, which indicate completion of a set of courses comprising a body of knowledge on a particular topic, but the granting of such certificates is not the primary purpose of the institutions. Tertiary education is not a term used in reference to post-secondary institutions in the United States or Canada.
The general higher education and training that takes place in a university, college, or Institute of Technology usually includes significant theoretical and abstract elements, as well as applied aspects (although limited offerings of internships or SURF programs attempt to provide practical applications). In contrast, the vocational higher education and training that takes place at vocational universities and schools usually concentrates on practical applications, with very little theory.
In addition, professional-level education is always included within Higher Education, and usually in graduate schools, since many postgraduate academic disciplines are both vocationally, professionally, and theoretically/research oriented, such as in the law, medicine, pharmacy, dentistry, and veterinary medicine. A basic requirement for entry into these graduate-level programs is almost always a bachelor's degree. Requirements for admission to such high-level graduate programs is extremely competitive, and admitted students are expected to perform well.
Mean financial wealth of U.S. families by education of the head of household, 1989-2010
Mean income of U.S. families by education of the head of household, 1989-2010
In the United States, there are large differences in wages and employment associated with different degrees. Medical doctors and lawyers are generally the highest paid workers, and have among the lowest unemployment rates. Among undergraduate fields of study, science, technology, engineering, math, and business generally offer the highest wages and best chances of employment, while education, communication, and liberal arts degrees generally offer lower wages and a lower likelihood of employment.