Colleges vs Universities: What’s the Difference?

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    In part, the difference between “university” and “college” is location-dependent. That’s to say that the answer to the question “what’s the difference between colleges and universities?” is different, depending on whether you are in the UK or the US. 

    Confused? So are lots of other students — particularly international students. Don’t worry, though. In this article, we will carefully answer the question “what’s the difference between college and university?”.

    College vs university: where does the confusion come from?

    So what’s the difference between a college and a university? Many students, especially international students, often wonder “is college and university the same”? Although there are differences between colleges and universities, these differences vary outside of the US. 

    In the UK, students often attend “college” or a “junior college,” a 2-year program, after completing compulsory schooling at 16, to prepare for “university,” where they will pursue their bachelor’s degree. 

    In the US, the terms “college” and “university” are often used interchangeably. There are key differences, however, between the two. Generally speaking, a university is a large, culturally diverse, publicly-funded school, with a wide variety of academic programs (including graduate studies) and ample research opportunities. In contrast, a college is often a small, privately-funded school, with small class sizes and a greater emphasis on individualized instruction. 

    What is a university?

    A university is an institution of higher learning that offers both undergraduate programs and graduate programs. Universities tend to have larger classes and larger, more diverse student bodies than colleges. They also tend to offer a wider range of academic programs and provide undergraduate students with valuable research opportunities. Students interested in conducting research during their time as an undergraduate student might want to consider attending one of the top public universities in the West

    Types of universities

    • Public Universities (State Universities)
    • Private Universities 
    • Research Universities

    Pros and cons of universities

    Let’s take a look at some of the pros and cons of attending a university.

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    What is a college?

    Colleges are institutions of higher learning that offer several types of degrees, including associate degrees and bachelor’s degrees. Generally, colleges do not offer graduate degrees, such as master’s degrees or doctorate degrees. There are many different types of colleges, including four-year colleges, liberal arts colleges in the East, community colleges, trade schools, and women’s colleges

    Regardless of the specific type of school, colleges tend to share the following similarities: They’re small, privately-funded higher education institutions with small class sizes that place an emphasis on individualized instruction and offer specialized academic programs. Oftentimes, they prioritize teaching the humanities, though this is not always the case. Professors who choose to teach at colleges, as opposed to larger institutions such as state universities, often prioritize their undergraduate instruction over their own research.  

    Types of colleges

    • Private Colleges
    • Public Colleges
    • Liberal Arts Colleges
    • Community Colleges


    • Art Colleges
    • Vocational Schools
    • Technical Schools
    • Trade Schools

    Pros and cons of colleges

    Let’s take a look at some of the pros and cons of attending college. 

    What is the difference between colleges and universities in the USA?

    As previously mentioned, the respective definitions of “college” and “university” depend on whether you are in the US or the UK. Let’s take a look at the differences between college vs university (USA). 

    The two terms, “college” and “university,” are often used interchangeably in the US. There are several differences, however, that are important to be aware of. 

    6 differences between colleges and universities

    At this point, you are more or less aware of the college and university differences, but let’s take a closer look. Let’s review 6 key differences between universities vs colleges.

    01

    Class and campus size

    Universities often feature larger class sizes and have larger rates of enrollment. Colleges, however, tend to be much smaller institutions and feature more individualized class instruction. 

    02

    Diversity

    Universities tend to be much more diverse than colleges. A lot of this has to do with size. Universities are also often found in cities, whereas smaller colleges may be located in more rural settings. 

    03

    Course offerings

    Universities tend to offer a wide variety of courses. Colleges, however, are great for students who want a liberal arts education, are undecided about their ideal career path, or are interested in pursuing a specialized undergraduate education.

    04

    Research opportunities

    Generally, universities offer more research opportunities than colleges. If you are interested in engaging in valuable research opportunities as an undergraduate student, you may want to apply primarily to universities.

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    05

    Graduate programs

    Although there are some exceptions, universities offer graduate programs while colleges do not. This is perhaps the main difference between large universities and smaller colleges. If you know that you want to pursue a master’s or doctorate degree, you may want to attend a university. This is because in some cases, universities offer accelerated master’s programs to students who completed their bachelor’s degrees there. 

    06

    Professors’ priorities

    Professors who choose to teach at colleges tend to place a larger emphasis on undergraduate instruction than professors who choose to teach at universities. Professors who teach at universities, particularly at research universities, often prioritize their research above their teaching duties. That said, universities tend to attract notable, innovative professors. 

    Which one is better, college or university?

    It all depends on your specific preferences and goals. Generally speaking, however, high school and college students interested in eventually earning advanced degrees, who are eager to conduct research while earning their undergraduate degree, and who are comfortable in large classes, may gravitate towards universities. Prospective students who value smaller class sizes and more individualized instruction, however, may gravitate more towards colleges. 

    Should I go to university or college?

    Although it’s helpful to have a thorough understanding of the question “what’s the difference between universities and colleges?” you shouldn’t dismiss a school too quickly during your college search, especially if you are basing your decision on whether the school is a college or university. Yes, there are general traits that hold true for most colleges and universities. That said, there are always exceptions and different colleges and universities may combine certain characteristics of colleges and universities. 

    During your college search, research each school thoroughly. Then carefully consider how each school could help you accomplish your academic and professional goals. You might be surprised by what you find. In general, keep an open mind during your initial college research. Decide what type of college experience you would most value and base your decision on some of these defining characteristics.

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    What is the difference between college and university? Key takeaways

    After understanding the main differences between universities vs colleges, you likely have a pretty good idea of which you would generally prefer. It’s important to remember, though, that sometimes names can be misleading. The two terms are often used interchangeably in the U.S. and sometimes a school that is technically a university will be labeled as a college, or vice versa. 

    Instead of basing your choice on whether a school is labeled as a “college” or “university,” make a list of features and characteristics of each that you value — such as research opportunities, affordability, class sizes, total enrollment, and academic programs — and use these characteristics to help you determine which schools you want to apply to. 

    FAQs

    Still have questions or concerns regarding the differences between colleges and universities? Review these frequently asked questions for further insight. 

    It’s possible to receive financial aid at both colleges and universities. Public colleges and universities tend to have lower costs of admission and offer reduced in-state tuition, funded by the government. Private colleges and universities tend to award more scholarships (funded by their endowments). 

    That said, regardless of whether you plan to attend a private or public college or university, it’s important to know how to write an essay for scholarships and apply for additional funding. 

    Harvard College is the undergraduate college of Harvard University. Harvard University, however, is all-encompassing, and refers to its graduate programs as well, including Harvard Business School, Harvard Law School, and Harvard Medical School. 

    Undergraduate students attend “Harvard College.” Holistically speaking, however, Harvard is indeed a “university” broken into several specialized colleges. This is often the case with other Ivy League colleges as well, such as Columbia and Yale. 

    Columbia College is the undergraduate college of Columbia University. It is also the original name of the school upon its founding in 1754. Now, “Columbia College” refers to its traditional undergraduate liberal arts college, whereas “Columbia University” includes its various graduate programs. 

    Yale College is the undergraduate college of Yale University. It is also the original name of the school upon its founding in 1701. When the school was restructured into several specialized colleges in 1887, “Yale College” officially became “Yale University.” In short, undergraduate students attend “Yale College” and graduate students attend “Yale University.” 

    In the UK, “colleges” often refer to 2-year programs that students attend after completing compulsory school at 16. In this context, “colleges” or “junior colleges” help students prepare for “university,” where they will earn their bachelor’s degrees. 

    In the United States, however, the terms “college” and “university” are often used fairly interchangeably. Although there is a difference between universities and colleges in the  US as well, both refer to institutions of higher learning. 

    It all depends on the specific programs. There are both highly-selective colleges and universities, just as there are both less-selective colleges and universities. There are lots of variables to consider and neither “colleges” nor “universities” are considered more elite than the other. For more information, look up each school’s U.S. News Best College ranking.

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