It’s college tour time, and parents and high school students are exploring all the options for the next step in their lives.
As they tour, they will begin to wonder, what are the differences between a college and university?
Some people think that a college means a private school and that a university is state-funded.
Others believe that you receive a better education at a university as opposed to a college.
In actuality, the differences between a college vs. university can be harder to define than you think. It’s no surprise that this can create some confusion for students as to what these institutions offer.
Multiple schools may meet your undergraduate and graduate expectations, but it’s helpful to know which degree programs are the best fit for you.
Whether you are an international student trying to choose an undergraduate or graduate program in the United States or a prospective student curious about the difference between a college and university, we have the answers.
Read on to answer any questions you may have about the difference between college and university.
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What is the difference between a college and a university?
College vs. University
A smaller institution that offers undergraduate degrees is considered a college. There are even community colleges and junior colleges that provide students with two-year degrees.
Most four-year colleges offer bachelor’s degrees, and some also offer associate degrees. Colleges offer many degree programs. If you have a particular college in mind, you can check out their undergraduate education. Many colleges offer high-quality education.
Liberal arts colleges focus on the humanities, arts, social sciences, and natural sciences. Liberal arts colleges also focus on broad scope knowledge and develop general intellectual capacities.
- Community college offers associate’s degrees and certificates and can be the starting point for higher learning. The biggest difference between college and junior college, other than the type of degrees, is the length of time it takes to complete. At a community college, your degree will typically take two years to complete. Many students go on to transfer those credits as a stepping stone to complete a four year college education.
Other differences between colleges and universities
An institution offering both undergraduate and graduate degrees is considered a university. Technically, universities offer undergraduate degrees that will lead a student towards a master’s degree or a doctorate.
Large universities can also have a medical or law school for those pursuing professional degrees in those fields. Sometimes, they even have these great programs that allow you to get both your undergraduate and your graduate degree in a shorter amount of time.
Universities offer a more diverse curriculum and programs because they have a much larger number of enrolled students. Some people think that universities are larger institutions, though not all universities are larger than colleges.
Many universities have research opportunities. If you are interested in research, a university may have more to offer. Students can decide between both public universities and private universities. A liberal arts school can be either a college or university.
Undergraduate teaching can be excellent at colleges and universities. Either a college, a community college, or a larger university offers undergraduate degrees, financial aid, a liberal arts education, and general education courses.
If you are interested in online learning, many colleges and universities offer online degrees, depending on the academic program.
Related Resource: What is a Bachelor’s Degree?
History of the Two Terms: University Versus College
During the Middle English period, the word university appeared between 1250 CE and 1300 CE. The word university is older than the word college, which did not appear for another 50 to 150 years.
College and university both have Latin origins – universities (guild, corporation, society) and Collegium (club, community, society).
How does a university receive its classification?
Before a college can receive a university status, it must meet a few requirements for at least five years:
Organization – It must have graduate degree programs and associated programs plus they must be separate from the undergraduate program and the entire organization itself. It must also have staff that has the primary responsibility of administering the graduate and professional programs.
Program – It must have an undergraduate studies program that leads to a bachelor’s degree in a wide range of academic subjects plus graduate degrees that lead to advanced degrees in a minimum of three different academic or professional fields.
Resources – It must be able to financially support its graduate and professional programs and have the facilities and equipment required to exhibit the level of work needed in both.
Accreditation – It must be accredited and depending on the state, possibly licensed and incorporated within the state.
Universities have evolved into large, widespread institutions with different academic programs that serve a broad range of students throughout the United States and around the world.
On occasion, there is a blurry line between a college vs. university; this can happen when a college offers graduate programs in a few areas.
For example, both St. Joseph’s College in New York and the College of William & Mary offer education, creative writing, and graduate business programs. These institutions prefer to remain colleges because of tradition. Because they have been a college for so long, it would be upsetting to students and alumni to change their name now.
Union College in Ohio considered changing their name to the University of Mt. Union but abandoned the idea among protest from the alumni. Both college and university can be higher education institutions and offer exceptional undergraduate and graduate programs.
Origins of the Terms
Origins of the Terms
Depending on your country, the difference between a college or a university is how the terms are used. In many schools in the United States, the two terms are used interchangeably, and both mean a school at the postsecondary level.
Otherwise, the term university usually means a large institution that offers graduate and doctorate programs while college means undergraduate degrees or associate degrees.
In the United Kingdom, colleges are schools found with a university and they do not award degrees or are a part of the program that the university used to award a degree. Colleges can even be something other than a learning institution and can be related to the facilities or accommodations in a university. Sometimes, the term college will refer to a secondary education institution where students can earn advanced qualifications.
In the United Kingdom, colleges are schools found with a university, and they do not award degrees or are a part of the program that the university used to award a degree. Colleges can even be something other than a learning institution and can be related to the facilities or accommodations in a university. Sometimes, the term college will refer to a secondary education institution where students can earn advanced qualifications.
In Canada, the term college will usually refer to vocational, artistic, technical and scientific third state education. There is also a term in Canada of University college which means a college that is not recognized as being completely independent the same way as a university is.
In Australia, the term college means secondary education and is not commonly used for specific vocational schools or schools inside a university. The term faculty is more often used instead of college at the third level of education.
Harvard University versus Harvard College
A perfect example is comparing Harvard University and Harvard College. Harvard University encompasses Harvard College and ten other schools that offer both graduate and professional programs. Harvard University has a four-year program for students looking to get their bachelor’s degree with about 6,500 students.
Each graduate and professional school runs independently, but they are still part of the same university. They keep their admissions offices and teaching and research faculty separate, and they do not offer any undergraduate programs.
Columbia College vs Columbia University
You may come across a higher education institution with similar names during your school search. For example, Columbia College is a private liberal arts college in Missouri. Columbia University is an Ivy League university in New York.
Another example of this would be Boston University and Boston College. Although Boston College is considered a research university, it retains its use of college as a historical nod to its liberal arts past. It may surprise you to know their acceptance rate and their school rankings are pretty similar; however, enrollment is much larger at BU.
If the cost of higher education has you worried, consider this first step: Start your undergraduate degree at a local community college. Community colleges may have smaller class sizes and fewer program offerings than four-year colleges and universities.
Can international students attend a community college? Yes, community colleges have an open enrollment possibility, making it possible for prospective international students to attend. Just as with colleges and universities, you are eligible for financial aid while attending a community college.
University Vs. College: Which Should I Choose?
It depends on your academic and career goals whether a college vs. a university is a better choice for you.
Many people have the idea that going to a university is better than going to a four year college. Both are equal academically, but if you prefer a school with a wider choice of classes and programs, a university may be a better fit.
If you prefer small-sized classes and being able to interact more with their professors, a college might be a better option. Whether you go to Yale University or Columbia College, undergraduate students and graduate students and even prospective international students can find the school that will be the best fit.
Remember, the name of the school holds less importance than whether the school is a good fit for you personally. Decide what you want from your college experience, and then choose a college or university that fits that ideal.