College vs. University – Usage, Difference, & Meaning

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Danielle McLeod

Danielle McLeod is a highly qualified secondary English Language Arts Instructor who brings a diverse educational background to her classroom. With degrees in science, English, and literacy, she has worked to create cross-curricular materials to bridge learning gaps and help students focus on effective writing and speech techniques. Currently working as a dual credit technical writing instructor at a Career and Technical Education Center, her curriculum development surrounds student focus on effective communication for future career choices.

Are you heading off to college this fall or university?

Did that question confuse you? It might, depending on where you are from in the world. In American English, college and university are generally used interchangeably, but there are some subtle differences between them. It’s also important to know how other countries might view the different words in order to avoid missing out on opportunities.

Let’s take a closer look at the difference between these two institutions so you are aware of what each can offer you.

What’s the Difference Between College and University?

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University usually denotes a school that offers full undergraduate and graduate programs, while colleges usually offer more narrow programs and may have no graduate studies at all. But in the United States, there are no official designations for these terms, and colleges and universities can call themselves what they want.

In practical American usage, a university has connotations of prestige that college doesn’t have, although there are some highly respected universities that call themselves colleges out of tradition (e.g., Dartmouth College). In fact, most universities call the schools of study they offer colleges.

For example, some American universities refer to their undergraduate programs as colleges (e.g., Harvard College at Harvard University), while others use college to denote areas of specialty study within the university organization. The University of Michigan has the College of Literature, Science and Arts, the College of Engineering, and the Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning, among others. In these situations, students may need to apply to the college for acceptance rather than the university.

Plus, it’s rare to hear anyone talk about going to university in the US. It’s more common to hear someone say you go to college after high school. It is used as a generic term for higher educational institutions, even if the college you’re attending calls itself a university.

For example:

  • Monica was the first in her family to be accepted to college after high school.
  • College-caliber advanced placement exams can help students offset costs as freshmen.

Universities Defined

University is derived from the medieval Anglo-French université, or ”institution of higher learning,” influenced by the Latin universus, meaning “whole or entire.”

Despite the above-mentioned information concerning America’s interchangeability between college and university, if you are considering a school that places a university in its name, you will most likely have exposure to a wider array of options in your studies and more focused academic programs.

There are also public and private universities to choose from, offering both four-year undergraduate degrees and graduate degree programs. They are generally quite large overall, with thousands of students, and may have campuses located across the state they originate in. Size does not define them, however, as some may only accept a small number of students.

Universities often devote themselves to research, and if you are focused on a specific subject, they are usually the best choice to attend when you want to be an expert in your field. As a student, you are likely able to benefit from highly qualified research professionals.

Colleges Defined

The word college is actually derived from the Latin collegium, meaning community, society, or guild. It meant to be a part of something with others, usually in an academic sense.

Some universities use the term college to highlight a specific school of study encompassed within its institution. However, you won’t often find a stand-alone college sharing the same researched based studies as a university. Of course, there are exceptions, such as Dartmouth College mentioned above, or Columbia College.

Most colleges feature a smaller student population, smaller class sizes, as well as fewer education course offerings compared to a university. What they will offer are focused studies specific to certain fields. Many colleges are also private compared to universities.

College is also used to refer to higher education experiences that may not result in bachelor or graduate degrees. Instead, community colleges, junior colleges, vocational colleges, and technical schools offer two-year associate degrees, skill certifications, and trade apprenticeship programs in specific disciplines such as visual arts, media design, liberal arts-type study, and career-related certificates. There are some four-year colleges you can consider, which is why researching your possibilities is important. 

How Does This Differ Outside the United States?

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America is unique in how it refers to higher education. College is not commonly used outside of the US except to refer to schools of study that prepare students to earn degrees at a university. For example, a college in the UK or Canada is usually a secondary education institution that grants diplomas to students for entry into university.

This also can vary from school to school, however, but outside the US, university is used as the generic term for higher education, not college. In fact, it is often shortened to “Uni” when referred to in informal speech.

For example:

  • Many people head to university after school for more reasons than getting a good job.
  • I’m so excited to hear she will be attending Uni in September! What a great opportunity!

College can even mean much less than post-secondary studies. For example, in Spain, colegio (college) means high school. Knowing these differences can help potential international students know all of what is available to them so they don’t pass up an opportunity due to nuances in linguistic terminology.

Let’s Review

In the US, college and university are used interchangeably, with college as the preferred way to define higher, post-secondary educational institutions. Colleges are different from the generally larger universities, however. Most institutions carrying the name university are research-based and offer very focused courses of study, usually from professors who have spent years researching and studying in the field. Most advanced degrees, such as 4-year, master’s degree, and doctorate programs, come from a university.

Colleges are also focused on their studies but generally offer two-year degree programs, certifications, and training through technical colleges, vocational schools, and trade school options more so than a university. There are exceptions, however, and both offer a high-quality education based on your focus of study.

Outside the US, college is referred to as a place where you receive higher education but not a degree. In Spain, it actually means high school. University is the preferred term for education institutions for use outside the US when referring to a student going on to post-secondary studies that will result in a degree.

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