Higher Education Glossary of Terms

Learn the terms and phrases used by TNReconnect colleges and universities.

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Academic advisor:

A member of a school's faculty or professional staff who provides advice and guidance to students on academic matters, such as course selections and degree requirements. They can also serve as excellent campus resources for other campus services. Some academic advisors are professional advisors -- being an academic advisor is their full-time job. Many professional academic advisors have specialized educational backgrounds in college student development and the adult learner.

Academic year:

Annual period during which a student attends and receives formal instruction at a college or university, typically from August or September to May or June. The academic year may be divided into semesters, trimesters, quarters, or other calendars.


Official recognition that a college or university meets the standards of a regional or national association. Some professional programs (e.g., nursing, business, and engineering) may also be accredited. Although students are not required to attend an accredited college, employers, other schools, and governments worldwide often only recognize degrees from accredited schools.

Associate Degree:

An undergraduate degree awarded by a college or university upon successful completion of a program of study, usually requiring two years or the equivalent) of full-time study. An associate's degree is typically awarded by community colleges; it may be a career or technical degree, or it may be a transfer degree, allowing students to transfer those credits to a four-year bachelor's degree-granting school. Common degree types include Associate of Arts (A.A.), Associate of Science (A.S.) or Associate of Applied Science (A.A.S.) and generally require a program of 60-62 college level credits.


To take a class to gain knowledge about a subject, but without receiving credit toward a degree.

Bachelor Degree:

An undergraduate degree awarded by a college or university upon successful completion of a program of study, typically requiring at least four years (or the equivalent) of full-time study. Common degree types include Bachelor of Arts (B.A. or A.B.), Bachelor of Science (B.S.), Bachelor of Applied Science (B.A.S.), or a Bachelor of Interdisciplinary Studies (B.I.S.). A typical bachelor’s degree requires 120-135 college level credits. A bachelor's degree is required before starting graduate studies.


The grounds and buildings where a college or university is located.


An official publication of a college or university giving information about academic programs, policies, faculty, and services. The catalog is updated annually.


A college certificate is a quickly obtained credential awarded by an educational institution. Often lasting just a few months, certificate programs are shorter than two-year associate or four-year bachelor’s degree programs and usually allow students to enter the workforce much more quickly.


A post-secondary institution that typically provides only an undergraduate education, but in some cases, also graduate degrees. "College" is often used interchangeably with "university" and "school." Separately, "college" can refer to an academic division of a university, such as College of Business.

Community college

A public, two-year post-secondary institution that offers the associate degree and certificates. Community colleges typically provide a transfer program, allowing students to transfer to a four-year school to complete their bachelor's degree, and a career program, which provides students with a vocational degree and direct entry to the workforce.


A course that must be taken during the same term as another course. The course content in the two courses is complimentary. For example, a science laboratory course is a co-requisite to the corresponding science lecture course.


A regularly scheduled class on a particular subject. Each college or university offers degree programs that consist of a specific number of required and elective courses.


Units that a school uses to indicate that a student has completed and passed courses that are required for a degree. Each school defines the total number and types of credits necessary for degree completion, with every course being assigned a value in terms of "credits”. Most courses are offered for 3 credits. The number of credits typically reflects the number of classroom hours per week.


A diploma or title awarded to students by a college or university after successful completion of a program of study.


A division of a school/college, made up of faculty and support staff that gives instruction in a particular field of study, such as the history department.


To withdraw from a course. A college or university typically has a period of time at the beginning of a term during which students can add or drop courses. This is a specific process and students should consult with their academic advisor to ensure the process is followed correctly. Students who simply stop attending a course are NOT dropped from the course and will receive a failing grade.


Courses that students can choose to take for credit toward a degree, but are not required. Most degree programs have one or more elective courses included.


To register or enter a school or course as a student.


Not required to do something that other students may be required to do. For example, a school may require all students to take a freshman English course, but some students may be exempt based on their college entrance exam scores or their previous coursework.

FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid):

Application used by U.S. citizens and permanent residents to apply for financial aid from U.S. federal and state governments. International students are not eligible for U.S. government aid, but schools may ask international students to submit a FAFSA to determine financial need. There is NO COST to apply for financial aid using the FAFSA. https://fafsa.ed.gov/


A student in the first year of high school or college/university. A student’s age has no bearing on being classified as a “freshman.” To progress to sophomore status, a student must achieve a minimum number of credits.

Full-time student:

A student who is enrolled at a college or university and is taking at least the minimum number of credits required by the school for a full course load. Typically, enrollment in 12 credits is considered to be full-time; however, students may need to enroll in more credits per semester to complete the program as a full-time student.

General Education Courses:

(Gen Eds.) A broad, common foundation of study upon which to develop skills of oral and written communication as well as critical thinking and logical and scientific reasoning. Most General Education courses are taken during the freshman and sophomore years.


A score or mark indicating a student's academic performance on an exam, paper, or in a course.

Grade point average (GPA):

A student's overall academic performance, which is calculated as a numerical average of grades earned in all courses. The GPA is determined after each term, typically on a 4.0 scale, and upon graduation, students receive an overall GPA for their studies. The college catalog contains examples of the GPA computation.

Graduate school:

The division of a college or university, or an independent postsecondary institution, which administers graduate studies and awards master's degrees, doctorates, or graduate certificates. Typically, students must earn a bachelor’s degree in order to be considered for graduate school.

Graduate student/graduate studies:

A student who already holds an undergraduate degree and is pursuing advanced studies at a graduate school, leading to a master's, doctorate, or graduate certificate. A "graduate" can also refer to any student who has successfully completed a program of study and earned a degree or certificate.


A type of financial aid that consists of an amount of money given to a student, often by the federal or a state government, a company, a school, or a non-profit organization. A grant does not have to be repaid.


Academic courses focused on human life and ideas, including history, philosophy, foreign languages, religion, art, music, and literature.

Independent study:

An academic course that allows students to earn credit for work done outside of the normal classroom setting. The reading or research assignment is usually designed by the students themselves with the help of a faculty member, who monitors the progress. Credit can vary from 1-12 or more credits.


An organization created for a specific purpose, usually for research, that may be located on a college or university's campus.


A student in the third year college/university. To progress to senior level status, a student must earn a minimum number of credits.

Liberal arts:

Academic studies of subjects in the humanities, social/behavioral sciences, and the natural sciences, with a focus on general knowledge, in contrast to a professional or technical emphasis.


A type of financial aid that consists of an amount of money that is given to someone for a period of time, with an agreement that it will be repaid later with interest accumulating. Loans may be through the federal government or a private loaner. Interest rates vary. International students are generally not eligible for U.S. federal government loans and will typically require an American cosigner to apply for a private bank loan.


The academic subject area that a student chooses to focus on during his or her undergraduate studies. Students typically must officially choose (or declare) their major by the end of their sophomore year, allowing them to take a number of courses in the chosen area during their junior and senior years. Students should meet with their academic advisor to complete any required paperwork related to choosing a major.

Master's Degree:

A graduate degree awarded by a college or university upon successful completion of an advanced program of study, typically requiring one or two years of full-time study beyond the bachelor's degree. Common degree types include Master of Arts (M.A.), Master of Science (M.S.); Master of Science in Nursing (M.S.N.), Master of Fine Arts (M.F.A.), and Master of Business Administration (M.B.A.).

Midterm exam:

An exam given after half of the academic term has passed and that covers all material studied in a particular course until that point. Not all courses have midterm exams.


An academic subject area that a student chooses to have a secondary focus on during their undergraduate studies. Unlike a major, a minor is typically not required, but it allows a student to take a few additional courses in a subject different from his or her major.


A student who does not meet a state's residence requirements. A college or university may have different tuition costs and admissions policies for residents versus nonresidents. In most cases, international students are considered nonresidents.


A college or university's official process of welcoming new, accepted students to campus and providing them with information and policies before classes begin, usually in a half-day or full-day or an online event. Generally, students register for their first semester courses at orientation and have the opportunity to meet with their academic advisor.

Part-time student:

A student who is enrolled at a college or university but is not taking the minimum number of credits required for a full course load.


A grading system in which students receive either a "pass" or "fail" grade, rather than a specific score or letter grade. Certain college or university courses can be taken pass-fail, but these typically do not include ones taken to fulfill major or minor requirements. Students must complete all of the required assignments and complete all of the tests in the course.

Placement test:

An exam used to test a student's academic ability so that he or she may be placed in the appropriate courses in that field (e.g., foreign languages). In some cases, a student may be given academic credit based on the results of a placement test.


A selection of a student's work compiled over a period of time and used for assessing performance or progress within a course.


A required course that must be completed before a student is allowed to enroll in a more advanced one.

Prior Learning Assessment:

(PLA) A process used by regulatory bodies, colleges and universities to evaluate skills and knowledge acquired outside the classroom for the purpose of recognizing competence against a given set of standards, competencies, or learning outcomes. Students may receive credit that is equivalent to a specific course. Examples include: Advance Placement examinations, departmental examinations (challenge exams), military credit, College Level Examination Program courses (CLEP), and portfolios.

Priority date:

The date by which an application must be received in order to be given full consideration. This can apply to admissions, financial aid, and on-campus housing. After the priority date passes, applications may be considered on a case-by-case or first-come-first-served basis.


A status or period of time in which students with low GPAs, or whose academic work is unsatisfactory according to school standards, must improve their performance. If they are unable to do so, they may be academically dismissed from the school.


The college or university official who is responsible for registering students and keeping their official academic records, such as transcripts.


The process in which students choose and enroll in courses to be taken during the academic year or in summer sessions.


A type of financial aid that consists of an amount of free money given to a student by a school, individual, organization, company, charity, or federal or state government. Often, a student’s exceptional academic achievement is the basis for such an award.


Periods of study that divide the academic year into two equal segments of approximately 15 weeks each (e.g., fall and spring). Some schools also offer shorter summer semesters, in addition to the traditional academic year.


A course offered to a small group of students who are typically more advanced and who meet with a professor to discuss specialized topics and writings.


A student in the fourth year of college/university. To progress to senior level status, a student must have earned a minimum number of college credits.


A student in the second year of college/university. To progress to sophomore level status, a student must have earned a minimum number of college credits.


Periods of study, which can include semesters, quarters, trimesters, or summer sessions.


A formal piece of writing on a specific subject, which may be required to earn a bachelor's or master's degree. The thesis is generally written in the student’s final term.


An official record of a student's coursework and grades at a high school, college, or university. A high school transcript is usually one of the required documents of the college application process. Veterans may be required to submit military transcripts (JST, DD214, etc.) for evaluation.

Transfer credit:

Credit granted toward a degree on the basis of studies completed at another college or university. For instance, students who transfer from a community college to a four-year college may have earned some transfer credit.


An amount of money charged by a school per term, per course, or per credit, in exchange for instruction and training. Tuition generally does not include the cost of textbooks, room and board, and other fees.

Upper Division:

A unit of credit earned during the Junior and Senior years. Upper division credits will typically begin with a number of “300/3000” or “400/4000”. Example: BUS 4995 Corporate Management.

Undergraduate student/undergraduate studies:

A student enrolled in a two-year or four-year academic program at a college or university after graduation from high school, leading to an associate or bachelor's degree.