Higher ed has many names. Learn the difference between

College vs. University: What's the Difference?


  • The terms "college" and "university" are often used interchangeably in the U.S.
  • Colleges and universities primarily differ in program offerings and degree types.
  • "University" refers to larger institutions offering both undergraduate and graduate programs.
  • "College" refers to community colleges, technical schools, and liberal arts colleges.

What's the difference between "college" and "university"? In the United States, the two terms are often used interchangeably to refer to higher education institutions, creating confusion for students and parents alike.

For prospective international students especially, understanding the differences between the two words is essential because the meaning of "college" varies across regions and languages. 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, students should be aware of the key differences between the two to help them decide which type of education to pursue.

A tall, gothic brick building with large windows and a detailed facade on an acadmic campus.

What Is a University?

Universities are public or private institutions that offer both undergraduate and graduate degrees. Known for their lively, diverse campus environments, these institutions usually feature sizable campuses and a wide variety of program offerings.

Whereas public universities commonly enroll tens of thousands of students, private universities are typically smaller and more selective. For example, Texas A&M University — a large public institution — enrolls nearly 70,000 students, while Princeton University — a highly regarded Ivy League school — 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 also generally more devoted to research, featuring an impressive array of facilities and labs to support these efforts. Many schools, like Johns Hopkins University and Stanford University, carry official research designations and spend billions 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 of study into subsections of colleges. At Michigan State University, for instance, each of its nearly 20 colleges maintains 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, such as nursing, rather than the university as a whole. This is largely due to the specialized curricula and limited availability of more competitive programs.

Colleges within universities also tend to foster a stronger sense of academic community among students who are studying similar subjects and possess similar interests.

Pros and Cons of Universities

Pros

  • You can choose from a broad array of program and course offerings that best align with your skills, passions, and desired career path.
  • Universities often feature incredibly diverse campuses, allowing you to meet and work alongside students, faculty, and staff from many unique backgrounds.
  • Classes are typically led by highly reputable professors, providing you with rich, dynamic learning environments.
  • Earning a bachelor's or graduate degree can open you up to more lucrative professional opportunities.

Cons

  • Due to tenure responsibilities and large class sizes, faculty may focus more on research efforts than teaching.
  • The total costs of attending a four-year university — including tuition, fees, room, board, and books — are steep and often result in substantial student loan debt.
  • Many large public universities face limitations in faculty and classroom availability, making it difficult for students to register for a course before it fills up.
  • While some students thoroughly enjoy large, bustling communities, others may feel lost or isolated, especially in classes with nearly 200 students.

A couple dozn students sit scattered about in a large, contemporary lecture hall taking an exam as a professor strolls down the aisle.

What Is a College?

Colleges often feature smaller student populations, more intimate campuses, and fewer program offerings than universities. 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 and may even have strong religious affiliations.

The term college can also 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.

Colleges are normally private and feature fewer students, smaller campuses, and fewer program offerings than universities.

When most people think of college, however, they may think of four-year schools that offer smaller class sizes, lower student-to-faculty ratios, and undergraduate-focused studies. For example, liberal arts colleges take a broad 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.

Finally, certain undergraduate colleges, such as Harvard College, are housed within the larger institution — in this case, Harvard University — but actually predate the university's founding.

Liberal Arts Colleges

Rather than specializing in one academic area, liberal arts colleges provide a diverse education to students consisting of subjects like the humanities, mathematics, and the creative arts. These colleges don't prepare you for a specific job — rather, they provide you with transferable skills needed to secure positions across a number of industries.

Contrary to what many believe, a liberal arts education does not focus exclusively on the humanities. Though this discipline remains a central part of a liberal arts curriculum, most liberal arts colleges offer degrees in several other fields as well, such as chemistry and music.

Williams College and Swarthmore College require students to take multiple courses in the humanities, natural sciences, and social sciences. Their curricula include studies in economics, biology, and English literature.

Community Colleges

Also referred to as junior colleges, community colleges are two-year schools that primarily award associate degrees and certificates. These colleges are known for their affordable tuition, smaller class sizes, and more individualized classroom settings.

Students often complete their general education requirements at a local community college and then transfer to a four-year university to begin pursuing their bachelor's degree.

Many community colleges, such as Hutchinson Community College and Ridgewater College, maintain nationally recognized accreditation and program pathways to facilitate the transition from college to university.

Technical and Vocational Colleges

Technical and vocational colleges — also known as trade schools — are two-year colleges that provide specialized training for specific career fields. These institutions are known for their intensive programs, smaller campuses, and less expensive tuition rates.

Trade schools do not typically require general education courses and instead focus entirely on developing skills and knowledge needed for a particular trade. Though both technical colleges and vocational colleges boast similar skills-focused curricula, technical college graduates often receive associate degrees, whereas vocational graduates primarily earn certificates of completion.

The majority of trade schools are private, for-profit institutions, but some technical schools, like Western Technical College in Wisconsin, maintain affiliations with community colleges, making them public schools.

Pros and Cons of Colleges

Pros

  • Colleges are usually more devoted to undergraduate teaching and less focused on research efforts.
  • At community colleges, tuition costs a fraction of a four-year university, making them much more affordable options.
  • Students at two-year colleges have more time to consider degree options as they complete their general education requirements.
  • Small class sizes allow for more personalized instruction and assistance from faculty.

Cons

  • Two-year colleges tend to feature limited curricula and do not offer the same variety of courses and programs as do universities.
  • Small community colleges often struggle with a lack of diversity and issues related to student engagement in the classroom.
  • 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.
  • Small colleges may not offer the same resources or diversity of people and studies as a larger university.

An older professor in a suit and tie stands and addresses a small seminar in a cozy library setting.

Is a College or University Right for You?

You'll need to consider several factors when deciding whether to attend a university or college. Large universities offer an almost limitless variety of studies, people, and resources, whereas small colleges offer a close-knit community and smaller class sizes.

Those looking to avoid spending excess time on general education courses and enter the workforce as quickly as possible may find vocational and technical schools an ideal fit. While the financial aspect of trade school is something to consider, full-time students can normally earn their career-specific certificates in less than two years.

Learners enticed by the traditional college experience — with its rich campus environments and diverse student bodies — 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.

If you're concerned about staying engaged in your studies and would feel more productive learning in a vibrant university environment, 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.