What’s the difference between college and university? Aren’t a college and university really the same thing?
The answer is yes—and also no.
Let’s look a bit closer at these terms to understand the differences.
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College vs University
So, what’s the difference between a college and a university?
For the general public, particularly when using American English, the terms “college” and “university” are used synonymously with each other.
The difference between university and college really comes down to where you live (or where you are searching).
College vs University in the United States
In the United States, colleges and universities can mean the same thing, at times.
Both universities and colleges in the US are considered tertiary education, or education completed after high school. Also, both colleges and universities offer undergraduate degrees, in most cases.
However, even in the US, there are differences between a university and a college.
Firstly, a college is usually a smaller school offering only undergrad degrees, such as a bachelor’s degree, while a university will usually have graduate and post-graduate programs, as well.
Universities are generally larger entities, and they may be made up of several constituent schools, academies, and even colleges (called a university system).
For example, the State University of New York (SUNY) is a massive university system (the largest in the US) made up of 64 different institutions, including lower-level colleges, medical centers, research centers, etc. There’s Clinton Community College in Plattsburgh, NY, part of the larger SUNY system, as well as the SUNY College of Optometry, an undergrad school with fast-tracked programs and undergrad degrees in vision science.
So, what’s the difference between a college and university in the US?
When, as it is with SUNY, colleges are small members of larger university systems, they may provide both undergraduate and graduate programs, though usually in a particular field (i.e., optometry, engineering).
However, when it is a standalone college, such as a local community college not part of a university system (though it might be affiliated with one), it usually offers only undergraduate programs and degrees.
And, rarely, a college can literally be synonymous with a university, particularly a research university. The most obvious example is Dartmouth College, which is one of the 8 private universities comprising the Ivy League.
University vs College Outside the United States
Though “college vs university” may have been confusing in the United States, with its various meanings, it has an even wider range of meaning outside of the US.
In countries like the United Kingdom and other Commonwealth nations, the term college takes on a variety of meanings:
- A college can be similar to a high school in the US, taking children below 18 years of age. For example, Winchester College in Hampshire, founded in 1382 (!), is a boarding school for boys aged 13-18.
- A college can refer to a tertiary school which can only award degrees validated by actual universities, meaning they can’t award degrees on their own.
- A college can also sometimes have full degree-awarding capabilities, such as King’s College London, which is part of the University of London system.
- A college may also refer to an independent tertiary school with the power to award its own degrees but without the recognized status of being a university.
Types of Universities & Colleges
When students consider universities, they will note there are several types. A public university is funded with public money. While a private university does not take public education funds and instead supports itself through tuition and donations.
Universities also offer different programs to their different levels of students. A university can be a teaching school, so their programs are partially taught by students who are learning too, such as a graduate student teaching an undergraduate student.
Most universities will also feature their research capabilities. They pride themselves on research dollars and programs.
There are a variety of different schools that fall under the college umbrella. As already mentioned, they are the school units found at a university.
A student could attend a two-year college at a community college. Often at the community college level, you can get introductory courses. Students can also get career and trade school training at the university level.
Understanding the Difference Between Colleges and Universities
Coming out of high school and finding the right university or college to apply to can seem both overwhelming and exciting at the same time.
And, when you add the dizzying definitions of college and university into the mix, things really can get out of hand.
Hopefully, though, this article has helped clear things up on the age-old college vs university debate. If you have any questions, feedback, or other points to add about university and college differences, let us know in the comments below, and thanks for reading!