College vs. university

In American English, college and university are generally used interchangeably, but there are some subtle differences between them. 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 there are no official designations for these terms, and colleges and universities can call themselves what they want.

In practical American usage, 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). Still, no one talks about going to university in the U.S. After high school, you go to college, even if the college you’re attending calls itself a university.

For example, these American publications use college as the generic term for higher education and higher-educational institutions:

Another way to keep colleges in decent financial shape during tough economic times, of course, is to raise tuition. [NY Times]

He was the first in his family to go to college. [Wall Street Journal]

Texas students were slightly behind their peers nationwide in performance on college-caliber Advanced Placement exams. [Houston Chronicle]

Some American universities refer to their undergraduate programs as colleges (e.g., Harvard College at Harvard University), while others use college to denote units within the university organization. For example, 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.

British, Australian, and Canadian English

In the U.K., universities are institutions that award degrees, while colleges are institutions that prepare students to earn degrees. The system can be rather complicated and varies from school to school. In practical usage, British English speakers generally use university as the generic term for higher education—for example:

She will be the first in her family to go to university. [The Guardian]

In the past a lot of people have gone to university for reasons other than to get a job. [Financial Times]

The same roughly applies in Canada and Australia, where university is used more often than college as the generic term—for example:

It used to almost be an act of rebellion to take a year off between high school and university. [Sydney Morning Herald]

Only 23 per cent of the first generation go to university, by far the lowest rate among any immigrant group. [Globe and Mail]

6 thoughts on “College vs. university”

  1. Given the word’s use several times within this article, it’s probably worth mentioning here (as I don’t think there’s a more specific place on the site for it) that in British usage at least the word “school” is almost never used conversationally in the context of higher education. That is, whilst a university might well have various departments known as the ‘School of Physical Sciences’ or ‘School of Art’, and there is a prestigious London School of Economics, no-one calls university/college level higher education itself “school” in the same way as north American use tends to – the word invariably refers to education (and educational establishments) up to the end of high school level only.

    I’m not ruling out the possibility of the term being used here within more formal situations, e.g. between educators in a professional capacity, but hearing Americans over the age of 18 ask what one is studying “at school” or talk about “going to school” will make an average British listener do a double take at first, imagining it is some joke about an apparent grown-up still being a schoolchild!

    • Than what do you say? When referring to going to ‘school’ (the place where you listen to a professor lecture, or do labs etc)

        • Assuming you mean in higher education still, if the conversation meant you needed to specify I suppose you’d say something like “I’m off to the university for my lecture now”, but in most cases I guess the context would be unnecessary: you would probably simply refer to going to “a lecture”, or “to class”. If you needed to supply some geographical context you’d just say “I’m off to the Old College/the History department/the campus” or whatever. The educational institution, as discussed within the article and my comment of three years ago, is the “university”, or more rarely the “college”, anyway. (As Ian points out, Oxford and Cambridge act more like federal unions of quasi-independent colleges, and people going to these will identify as belonging to their college more directly than to the university.)

  2. An anomaly that exists in the UK applies to students at Oxford and Cambridge universities who, due to the collegiate nature of those institutions, very rarely refer to being at university, preferring to say that they are at college.

  3. In Australia, the term “college” is more frequently used to refer to a Private (non-Government) Secondary School (usually denominational) e.g. Scotch College, Ballarat and Clarendon College. Some of these Private Secondary schools also use the term “Grammar” eg Melbourne Grammar. University is where you study for a degree, but in the past (prior to educational reforms in the 80’s) there were tertiary institutions called Colleges that offered diplomas, such as the Teacher’s Colleges. Today, institutions that refer to themselves as Colleges tend to offer Certificated vocational courses, often off-campus.


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