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What's the Difference Between a College and a University?

In the United States, 'college' and 'university' are not actually the same thing, despite the fact that they're often used interchangeably. That said, the difference between a college and a university is actually pretty simple.


The difference between a college and a university is pretty simple: One is a single school with a single purpose (kind of), and the other is a collection of linked schools. That said, the real differences in usage and understanding are actually a bit more complex. In other countries, "college" usually means "high school," and "university" is what follows. In the United States, however, "college" more generally refers to what follows high school, and "university" refers to schools that incorporate a college or colleges with graduate studies. We'll get to all these little differences in more detail though.

The Simple Version

To get at the difference between a college and a university, it will be easiest to start with a simple definitional difference. In the United States, a college is an institution that offers two-year associates degrees and four-year bachelor’s degrees. A university, on the other hand, is a single institution that contains multiple colleges or graduate schools in addition to at least one four-year college. Often, large universities are comprised of various "colleges," even at the undergraduate level of study. For example, you may go to the “Columbian College of Arts and Sciences” as an undergraduate at George Washington University. If your degree fields are within the domain of the arts and sciences programs (in contrast to other specialized schools, like the Elliott School of International Affairs), you will go to that college within the larger university. So, at each of the options, college accreditation does matter still, colleges offer an undergraduate education, and universities offer both undergraduate and graduate studies, tending to be larger institutions that offer a wide range of academic fields.

Exceptions to the Rule

Now that we’ve given a basic outline of the differences between institutions of higher education, we should talk about the words actual usages, as well as exceptions to the rule. First of all, it’s important to note that most universities begin as colleges, and become universities as they grow. As a result, a school may be called a college even after it technically becomes a university. By actual definition, a university will be classified as a university. If a school would rather maintain their original name though, for purposes of tradition or any other reason, a university may go by “college” still. This is why Dartmouth College is called a “college,” even though the school has both undergraduate and graduate programs. By definition, Dartmouth is a university—nevertheless, you would address all mail to “Dartmouth College,” because they’ve retained their original name.

Although not technically an exception to the rule, there is also a lot of confusion regarding community colleges in contrast to universities. Community colleges do tend to have various different schools within them, and so would seem to fit the bill for a university at first glance. However, community colleges only offer two- and four-year programs, generally without the option for graduate study at that school; though, it wouldn't be a stretch to say that community college doesn't suck after all. So, they are still considered colleges, even though they tend to have a wider range of academic possibilities than many smaller liberal arts colleges, for example.

A Difference of Usage

Even if everyone understood the difference between a college and a university, it would be a long time before misconceptions could be eradicated. This is because there is a marked divide in the simple meaning of the terms, and the ways in which they are used. Technically, "college" and "university" should both refer to same kind of thing. One is just, essentially, larger than the other, or a composite of the other. However, they are not always referred to in the same way. When someone talks about “going to college,” they generally mean that they are completing their undergraduate studies, most commonly a four-year bachelor’s degree. In this way, "college" more significantly marks a period of time in an individual’s life during which they are completing that particular portion of their studies.

In contrast, if someone in the United States uses the term "university," they are most likely referring to the physical place or the more abstract institution that supervenes on that place. The terms "college" and "university" in this context may also be interchangeable, and vary depending on the school—a college student at a university will most likely refer to their administration by referring to the "university," while a college student at a basic college may refer to the place or people by simply "college." However, both kinds of students could easily use the other term and be understood. That said, a college student at a basic college would be unlikely to refer to their place of education as a "university," as it is, by definition, not one. A university, on the other hand, is in a way a college—or at least has at least one college contained within it. So students at universities are more likely to use the terms interchangeably.

Crossing the Pond

It’s important to note that this difference between a university versus college is only relevant in the United States. Both the definition and the usage are unique to the States. Here, the terms "college" and "university" are easily confused because they are often used to refer to the same thing, and always refer to very similar things (places of study after high school). In Europe, broadly speaking, the difference is much less subtle. Generally, "college," or a cognate in other languages, is most often used to refer to high school or secondary school. After secondary school, students then have the option to go to university for higher education. Because of this, what people in the United States mean when they talk about "going to college" is actually a lot more similar to what people in Europe mean when they say something like "going to uni." In Europe, "university" is used to refer to the period of time, as well as the place and institution; whereas in the United States, it’s generally reserved for referring to the institution alone—the period of time during which students do their undergraduate studies would be simply referred to as "college."

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