What is the Difference
Between a College and a University?

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February 10, 2020

As you or your college-age child begin to explore options, keep in mind that some terms surrounding college admission may not be self-explanatory. For instance, “college” and “university” seem like they are simply two words for an institution of higher learning. Some believe that a college refers to a private school; they also believe universities are solely funded by the government. Other people believe they get a better education at a university than a college.

If you think about Harvard University, look more closely at its various schools. Harvard College refers to the four-year undergraduate school; Harvard University encompasses the College and the various graduate schools.

The two terms can have different meanings.

Some of these include:

  • A college is usually smaller and offers only undergraduate degrees
  • The institution that offers both undergraduate and graduate degrees is known as a university
  • Universities may offer medical school, law school, or another graduate-only program
  • The curriculum at a university is much wider and diverse because they have a larger student body

Degrees & Career Paths


What Does a University Have?


Typical universities offer undergraduate, graduate, and sometimes postgraduate degrees. Some universities make programs available that allow undergraduate students to earn both their undergraduate and graduate degrees as a dual program without spending years in school. They are able to do this because they know what their student body wants.

For those students who want to earn both degrees so they can begin their careers as quickly as possible, they structure an undergraduate plus graduate degree program so they can be finished concurrently. For students who want this option, some schools offer dual degree programs. This allows them to earn their bachelor’s degree credits, with some of those credits satisfying prerequisites in their master’s program. This allows you to earn your master’s in five years.

In the same way, you can earn your master’s and a higher-level degree concurrently, so you can earn your doctoral degree as you are working on your master’s

Exceptions to the Rule


Some colleges have a blurred line that means it has some characteristics of a university. One area where this happens is if a college such as St. Joseph’s College offers graduate degree programs. The College of William & Mary does the same thing.

This most often happens with historic colleges that don’t want to change their name to include “university”. Because of tradition and student and alumni preferences, they choose to keep the term “college” in their name, even though they could change it based on what they offer educationally.

Within a university’s degree programs, you’ll notice that some are formally named “the College of Business,” “the College of Education”, or “the College of Nursing”, yet each individual school falls within the official university offerings. Thus, when you graduate from the College of Business, your diploma will note that you graduated from the university’s College of Business. And college in this case simply represents a smaller section of the university as a whole that focuses on a specific area of learning.

That raises the question: How does a university receive its designation as a university? First, it should have a graduate studies program and associated programs. These must be kept separate from the undergraduate program. Graduate staff solely teaches graduate and professional students. Not every degree program that a college offers will also have a graduate degree option. Only those programs where the college administrators have learned of a demand for graduate options will offer graduate programs.

Which One Should You Choose?


What’s right for you may not be right for someone else. Universities and colleges both offer high academic value. If you are looking for a broad offering of services and programs, then a university is a better choice. But, if you look forward to professors who know you by name, then a college may be a better fit.

Do you want to learn from professors who possess strong knowledge of their field? Are you looking for a degree program that allows you to earn your bachelor’s and master’s degrees in a shorter time frame? If you want to delve more deeply into research, even at the undergraduate level, a larger university that offers your chosen major may be your best option. If you’re comfortable with the idea of a graduate student teaching one of your classes, this may be one of the features of a large university. This may happen because the professor is engaged in research or if they are busy writing an article or even a book.

Liberal arts colleges offer smaller class sizes. They also focus more on the teaching side of a degree program. Your professors will have the time to get to know you well as colleges are also often smaller.

It is important to remember that there are exceptions to every rule. There are large colleges and small universities.

Other Terms to Look Out For

Public vs. Private


The terms that describe public universities and private universities are specific. Public universities receive funds from the local governments in which they are located. A publicly funded university in Tucson, Arizona gets a portion of its funds from the city of Tucson; it receives another portion from the state of Arizona. Each state has, at minimum, one public university. Public universities are able to offer work-study positions to more students while private universities are more limited in this capacity.

Tuition rates are lower for students who live in Arizona and out-of-state students pay a higher tuition rate. Out-of-state students don’t pay state taxes, so they end up with a larger tuition bill.

Private universities receive their funding from private donations, tuition fees, and endowments. Their tuition fees are noticeably higher than those of students attending public institutions. The upshot for students at private universities is that there is more substantial financial aid.

Career Colleges, Technical Schools, Trade Schools, Vocational Schools


‘Career college’ is one term that covers schools such as trade schools, technical schools, and vocational schools. If you choose one of these colleges, you’ll receive an education that is much more job oriented. These schools or colleges offer associate degrees, certificates, and diplomas once you complete all degree requirements. You’ll spend about two years in school working toward your degree.

Degree/career choices include design, business, information technology, healthcare, dental hygiene, culinary arts, HVAC repair, cosmetology, and aviation maintenance.

In this category, you’ll find technical schools (both high schools and colleges). At the college level, these schools offer more specialized training within a specific trade, profession, or career field. Look for career fields such as business administration, computer technology, electronics, legal assisting, medical assisting, and automotive technology. Unlike a four-year university, you won’t be required to complete any general education credits before you start to take classes that pertain directly to your chosen career.

Trade schools are also called technical schools, vocational schools, or vocational colleges. Trade schools can either be private or public; many are for-profit businesses. Career fields offered include health sciences, medical assisting, nursing, and cosmetology. When you graduate, you’ll have a trade certificate or diploma showing proof of completion of your program.

Research University vs. Teaching University


This is a vital consideration as you decide whether to go to a larger university that focuses on research or a private, liberal arts college. Both types of institutions educate their students. However, the research-focused university requires its professors to accomplish specific goals to achieve tenure. The strongest emphasis is given to research in their field of expertise and writing books or articles.

At some research universities, graduate students teach undergraduate students in several classes each year; the actual professors are much more focused on their research and writing. At one university, the chancellor actively reduces the teaching course loads of professors so they will stay and continue their research. Professors receive generous research stipends. They also benefit from the large book acquisition budgets that research universities have.

Liberal arts colleges may have strong student-professor bonds. Many professors even know their students by name. Because their focus is on student learning, research doesn’t receive much consideration, if any. This can lead to stronger learning for students, as they end up feeling more involved in the learning process.

Community Colleges


Community colleges (junior colleges) are two-year colleges that provide you with a more-affordable college education. The degree you receive can be used as a way to transfer into a four-year college or university.

Community colleges may offer skills training toward a trade or career. They also often offer workforce development for people who need the knowledge to find and interview for the jobs they want. Community colleges also offer skills retraining for those looking to enter new fields, English as a second language courses, cultural activities, and community enrichment programs. Because they serve the community, they are truly community institutions.

Liberal Arts Colleges


Liberal arts colleges are four-year colleges that focus on undergraduate study, culminating in students earning their bachelor’s degrees. The bulk of the courses offered fall into the social sciences, humanities, and sciences. Liberal arts colleges are generally small. This allows professors to develop close relationships with their students. The focus is much more focused on undergraduate programs, and professors, rather than grad students, teach classes.

Student bodies range between 1,000 and 5,000. The curriculum focuses strongly on critical writing and thinking; students choose from classes such as sociology, religion, psychology, philosophy, math, science, and literature.