What’s the difference between “college” and “university”? The two terms are often used interchangeably to refer to higher education institutions, creating confusion. This confusion between the terms may even lead students to overlook institutions with the “college” label and instead consider only universities.
While both institution types offer undergraduate education, you should be aware of the key differences between the two to help you decide which type of education to pursue.
For international students especially, understanding the differences between the two definitions is essential because the meaning of “college” varies across regions and languages.
What Is a University?
Universities are public or private institutions that offer both undergraduate and graduate degrees. Known for their lively and diverse campus environments, these centers usually feature sizable campuses and a wide variety of program offerings.
While public universities commonly enroll thousands of students, private universities are generally smaller and more selective. For example, Texas A&M University enrolls nearly 70,000 students, while Princeton University serves just 8,000 students.
Universities are public or private institutions
that offer both undergraduate and graduate degrees
and are known for their lively, diverse campuses.
Universities are generally more devoted to research, featuring facilities and labs to support these efforts. Many schools, like Johns Hopkins University and Stanford University, carry official research designations and spend millions of dollars each year on research and development.
While university professors may shift their focus to publishing and research, students benefit from classes led by some of the most highly qualified faculty in their respective academic fields.
Colleges Within Universities
Large universities frequently divide different programs into subsections of colleges. At Michigan State University, for instance, each of its nearly 20 colleges maintain its own facilities, research centers and societies that are exclusive to students within that department.
These designations sometimes require prospective students to apply to a particular college for the program they want to pursue, rather than the university as a whole. This is largely due to the specialized curricula and limited availability of more competitive programs.
Pros and Cons of Universities
- You can choose from a broad of program and course offerings that best align with your skills, passions and desired career path.
- Earning a bachelor’s or graduate degree can open you up to more lucrative professional opportunities.
- Classes are typically led by highly reputable professors, providing you with rich, dynamic learning environments.
- Universities often feature incredibly diverse campuses, allowing you to meet and work with students and staff from many unique backgrounds.
- The costs of attending a four-year university (including tuition, fees, room, board, and books) often result in substantial student loan debt.
- While some students thoroughly enjoy large, bustling communities, others may feel lost or isolated, especially in classes with nearly 200 students.
- Many large public universities face limitations in classroom availability, making it difficult for students to register for a course before it fills up.
What Is a College?
The term ‘college’ can refer to community, vocational and technical colleges. While a small number of these colleges offer bachelor’s degree programs, most award only associate degrees and certificates.
The majority of these schools are private and receive little to no state funding. As a result, many colleges place less emphasis on research efforts.
Colleges are normally private and feature fewer students,
smaller campuses, and fewer program offerings than universities.
When most people think of college, they may think of four-year schools that offer smaller class sizes, lower student ratios and undergraduate-focused studies. For example, liberal arts colleges take an approach to education by emphasizing the importance of studying a range of academic subjects. By contrast, other colleges may include programs for one specific discipline, such as engineering, graphic design or visual arts.
Colleges offering focused and professional specializations are called vocational and technical colleges, and are designed to appeal to a small, select group of students with interest in one specific field.
Some colleges are technically universities but use the term “college” because a university already exists with the same name. For example, the College of Charleston includes the term “college” in its name but is technically a public liberal arts and sciences university.
Pros and Cons of Colleges
- At community colleges, tuition costs a fraction of a four-year university, making them more affordable options.
- Students at two-year colleges have more time to consider degree options as they complete their general education requirements.
- Colleges are usually more devoted to undergraduate teaching and less focused on research efforts.
- Small class sizes allow for more personalized instruction and assistance from faculty.
- Small, private liberal arts colleges that offer bachelor’s degrees tend to offer less financial aid and may be more expensive than a large university.
- Two-year colleges tend to feature limited curricula and do not offer the same variety of courses and programs as universities.
- Small community colleges often struggle with a lack of diversity and issues related to student engagement in the classroom.
Which one is Right for You?
If you are looking to avoid spending excess time on general education courses and enter the workforce as quickly as possible, you may find vocational and technical schools an ideal fit. While the financial aspect of trade school is something to consider, as a full-time student you can earn your career-specific certificates in less than two years.
You’ll need to consider several factors when deciding whether to attend a university or a college. Large universities offer an almost limitless variety of studies, people and resources, while small colleges offer a close-knit community and smaller class sizes.
Learners convinced by the traditional college experience can feel at home at either a large university or small liberal arts college. However, they may feel uninspired by the campus environments of community, technical and vocational colleges.
Students who want to get their general education credits out of the way can enroll at a community college before transferring to a four-year university.
Cost-conscious students who want to pursue a bachelor’s degree might consider starting their education at a two-year college. Completing general education requirements prior to transferring to a four-year university remains an extremely cost-effective option that can save you thousands of dollars.
Make up your mind
If you’re concerned about being busy in your studies and you feel like more productive learning in a university environment is for you, starting off at a community college might not be the best option for you.
Each type of higher education institution has its advantages and disadvantages. It’s up to you to determine which one best aligns with your personality, your interests and your financial and professional goals. Good luck with your choice and the best grades while studying!