What Is The Difference Between A College And A University?

By Amanda HoyleJanuary 7, 2022
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Amanda Hoyle
Amanda is a proficient and widely published educational leader, with Master's degrees in both Education and Psychology.
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Although often used interchangeably, the terms "College" and "University" do not mean the same thing in the U.S.

Origin And Definition Of Terms

The word “College” originates from the Latin word Collegium.

“Organized association of persons invested with certain powers and rights or engaged in some common duty or pursuit,” especially “body of scholars and students within an endowed institution of learning,” also “resident body of ecclesiastics supported by an endowment,”

According to Merriam Webster’s dictionary, it means:

  1. A self-governing constituent body of a university offering living quarters and sometimes instruction but not granting degrees
  2. An independent institution of higher learning offering a course of general studies leading to a bachelor's degree
  3. A part of a university offering a specialized group of courses
  4. An institution offering instruction usually in a professional, vocational, or technical field

The word "University", on the other hand, originates from the Latin “Universitas, which is where we get the word "universe", which means "whole". Institution of higher learning," also "body of persons constituting a university," from Anglo-French université, Old French universite "universality; academic community" (13th century), from Medieval Latin universitatem (nominative universitas), "the whole, aggregate," in Late Latin "corporation, society," from universus "whole, entire" (see universe). In the academic sense, a shortening of Universitas magistrorum et scholarium "community of masters and scholars;."  

According to Merriam Webster Dictionary, “University” means:

  1. An institution of higher learning providing facilities for teaching and research and authorized to grant academic degrees. Specifically: one is made up of an undergraduate division that confers Bachelor's degrees and a graduate division that comprises a graduate school and professional schools; each of which may confer master's degrees and doctorates.

Differences Between A College Vs University

The significant difference between the two institutions is size. Size doesn't necessarily mean the number of students. A college is a smaller institution than a university. University comprises different colleges offering degrees for both undergraduates and graduates. University Institutions usually offer graduate masters or doctorate degrees. They also might possess a medical or law school for those pursuing professional degrees in those fields. College institutions don't usually have graduate programs. Still, things can get confusing when you find out that some colleges in the United States are universities.

An example is St. Joseph's College, New York. They offer both Masters and Bachelors degrees but still choose to stick with their old name 'college' just for tradition. The two types of institutions don't have a clearly defined difference in cases like this.

Simply put, colleges are like academic departments in a University. A university has many colleges. A college is like a unit of a university, and several ones can sit within a university.

Types Of Colleges In The U.S

Colleges in the U.S. could either be private or public. Local and state governments in the U.S. fund some colleges and universities. They offer lower tuition rates to in-state residents and are termed public. On the other hand, out-of-state students still have access to these institutions but have to pay higher tuition rates.

Public Institutions like these are located in every state in the U.S. Each state has at least one public college or university within its borders.

The different types of Colleges that exist in the U.S. include:

Community Colleges

They are two-year public institutions that confer certificates, diplomas, and associate's degrees. Some states in the U.S. have started to offer a few Bachelor's degree programs in their community colleges. They are also sometimes called technical colleges, junior colleges, or city colleges.

They offer career education, Industrial training, and continuity in a 4-year institution (university) and the associate degree.

Liberal Arts Colleges

U.S. Liberal arts colleges emphasise undergraduate studies in the liberal arts and sciences. They provide an overview of the arts, natural sciences,  humanities, social sciences, and mathematics. Students don't follow strict academic schedules, unlike in other institutions. There are more private liberal art colleges than public. One of the few public ones is Sonoma State University, California and Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts.

Professional/Vocational Schools (E.G. Nursing, Teaching)

Vocational schools/ Colleges are more job-specific in their approach. Traditionally, they differ from four-year colleges by focusing on job-specific training rather than providing more academic-focused/theoretical training for students pursuing careers in a professional discipline.

Degree programmes offered at community and vocational schools usually take two years to complete. Students are awarded an associate degree, a certificate, a professional degree. After finishing, the students can then decide whether or not to go to a university to complete their Bachelor’s degree or even a Master’s or PhD. On the other hand, courses offered at liberal arts colleges take four years and then graduate with a Bachelor's degree in Languages, History, Math, or others.

Which Is Better, College Or University?

Now that you know the difference, which one is right for you? It all balls down to what you want.

Some factors to consider include:

Learning Preference

Class size matters to some people. Universities usually have larger classes that might not be overwhelming or might be the best option for others. Engagement with Professors might be easier for some when in a small class than those in larger ones. Some thrive in large communities, while others might get lost in it.

Career Opportunities

Suppose your goal is to advance in education and earn graduate degrees. Going to a University is better. Sometimes, universities offer these great programs that allow you to get both your undergraduate and graduate degrees in a shorter time. Because of a greater focus on research than colleges, they have more facilities and open you up to more opportunities. Curriculum and programs in Universities are more diverse.

Attending college education does not prevent you from applying for a graduate degree at a university later on if there is a need to or if you want a  change in your career. Employers do not look down on a college degree as long as it indicates you have the required skills. While many people believe that going to a university is better than going to a college, both are a great choice if they are equal academically.

Remember, the ball is in your court. Making a choice that fits you personally is more important than going to an institution with a big name.

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Amanda Hoyle
Amanda is a proficient and widely published educational leader, with Master's degrees in both Education and Psychology.
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