People sometimes refer to the American higher education "system." However it's not a system, really, which is its great strength. Instead, higher education in the U.S. is composed of a variety of institutions - some related, but many individual - that provide education beyond the high school level.
Major sectors of American higher education are:
private, nonprofit (also called independent) colleges and universities - the institutions featured on this website;
public, or state, colleges and universities, typically funded to varying degrees by their state, and administered most often through a state system of higher education;
community colleges, funded largely by their local and state jurisdiction, and offering career training, two-year associate's degree programs, and the first two years of bachelor's degree programs (though some also offer four-year degree programs); and
proprietary, or for-profit, schools, that often specialize in career and job-related training and generate profits for their owners.
Though "independent" is less commonly used to describe the diverse set of private, nonprofit higher education institutions, it's a term that does capture what distinguishes them from institutions in other sectors. Each operates independently in serving its unique mission as defined by its founders and its present leadership.
Many private, nonprofit colleges and universities affiliate with subsets of like-minded or similarly located institutions - Jesuit colleges, women's colleges, and the colleges in Appalachia, for example. Still, each of these very independent institutions, governed by its own board of directors or trustees, remains as distinctive as a fingerprint.
For a detailed look at what makes private, non-profit colleges and universities special, download or order copies of Independent Colleges and Universities: A National Profile