Difference Between College And University: In-depth Evaluation

October 20, 2020

To figure out why some educational establishments are referred to us as colleges, and others as universities, and which of them are more suitable for you as an applicant, let’s dig into the matter and take each school point by point.

Maybe for people from some other countries, these two words don’t make any confusion, but in the USA, we often say “college” when speaking about various institutes of higher education: “a college student”, “college undergraduate”, “college degree.” And in all these cases, a person can be both at college or university.

So, is it the same? – No, actually. And there are some considerable differences between the two.

What Is Called a College?

First of all, colleges are smaller than universities. And it is not always about the campus size – usually, colleges don’t provide a graduate program. Mostly undergraduate degrees can be obtained there if it’s a 4-year college or an associate’s degree in the case with a 2-year college.

However, it is not obligatory for all the colleges. There can be exceptions like everywhere.

Due to the fact that colleges are more oriented on the one-degree type, their classes are not so big, like in universities. In college, students often get more attention from mentors and faculty. Undergraduate teaching prevails here, whereas research programs are not so common. It means that in colleges, they don’t lay so much emphasis on theoretical subjects like in universities.

Colleges, where the enrolment is limited, are often specialized, e.g., Liberal arts colleges or colleges with a focus on the engineering disciplines. Some colleges teach the unique curriculum or religious disciplines, especially when they are private and receive no funds from state governments.

Field-specific colleges, like graphic design institutions, military academies, etc. are not obliged to provide wide offerings. The reason is that the students who apply there have already selected a specific area of study.

The majority of colleges, which offer undergraduate degrees, have fewer program offerings than universities. Colleges consist of academic departments, while universities sometimes consist of separate schools divided according to the major type.

In some cases, the difference between college and university may be really tricky. Several colleges do offer graduate and professional degrees, for example:

  • Dartmouth College (New Hampshire) provides graduate degrees in such various fields as business, medicine, computer science, engineering, etc.;
  • The College of William and Mary (Virginia) offers graduate degrees in such fields as law, business, the arts and sciences, education, and marine science;
  • St. Joseph’s College (in New York) allows students to obtain graduate degrees in business, education, creative writing, etc.

Very often, such establishments as above are named colleges only due to the tradition. In the beginning, they were just undergraduate institutions; however, they later started to provide graduate programs. Former graduates are not eager about changing the name of their alma mater. For this reason, such colleges keep their original name to avoid upsetting the alumni.

Another reason for colleges, which are more universities by nature, to keep its label is that universities with the same names already exist. It is a rare case, but still. For instance, Boston College can be considered a university in all respects, but there is already Boston University. So the change of name is not possible in this case.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Colleges

For your convenience, below, we’ve gathered the main advantages and disadvantages of colleges, which may help you understand if this type of school fits you:


  • you are more likely to receive individual attention from academic staff;
  • the student community is often more unified and connected;
  • greater focus is usually placed on undergraduate teaching;
  • there are more to choose from in the curriculum if you have specific interests.


  • usually, there are fewer opportunities for research work;
  • among the academic staff, there are fewer field-specific leading researchers than in universities;
  • direct access to advanced degrees is rarely provided;
  • there may not be such a large amount of program offerings.

What Is Called a University?

Universities are mostly bigger institutions where students can obtain both bachelor’s and graduate degrees. Students who take graduate programs at a university can get master’s degrees and PhDs.

In many universities, there are integrated professional schools, where students study law, business, or medicine. Some universities that prepare students for very sophisticated and complex work areas, like engineering, provide 5-year programs for students.

Among other differences between colleges and universities, the latter has a larger student body in comparison to colleges. That is why they offer more various courses and programs for students. It is a common practice when universities are divided into sub-schools, which are named “colleges.” For instance, at The College of Arts & Sciences, undergraduates study humanities, and at The College of Engineering, students are taught engineering.

Meanwhile, such sub-schools or “colleges” are considered to be integral parts of a larger university. So, undergraduate students have to decide in advance which fields of study they are interested in when opting for universities that have such subdivisions.

Also, universities provide more focus on research work. As opposed to colleges, there are more students, most of whom are not undergraduates. Thus, this area is popular among university students. Besides this, universities offer a number of opportunities for practical education by means of independent research and collaboration with postgraduates on many projects.

As a result, the faculty at universities tends to be of high quality, as research facilities attract academic leaders in many fields. At the same time, concentration on research work sometimes leads to less interaction between undergraduates and the faculty in comparison to colleges.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Universities

Below we’ve prepared a list of main benefits and drawbacks of universities for you to analyze whether this type of school fits you:

H4 Advantages

  • availability of various research facilities for students, which gives the opportunity to do efficient research work;
  • students have better access to Master’s and Ph.D. degrees, as well as can interact with postgraduate students;
  • academic staff usually consists of eminent figures in different research fields;
  • students are offered more programs to study, and the students’ community is more diverse.

H4 Disadvantages

  • students may receive less individual attention from the academic staff;
  • more emphasis is made to the research work than to undergraduate teaching;
  • it’s harder to be on the same page with other students due to different experiences;
  • it happens to be not an easy task to switch a major when studying at a university, as there is more bureaucracy.

College vs University: What to choose?

For some students, colleges may be more suitable than universities; for others, it is quite the opposite. In any case, the choice of school should correlate with the goals and perspectives of students.
We’ve outlined several points for each educational establishment, which are aimed to help you recognize your preferences and make a decision.

H3 College Must be a Good Fit for You if:

  • you want to get into a solid community and be surrounded by people you know and get on well with them;
  • you are looking for closer interaction with professors and like having discussions in small groups;
  • you are more interested in obtaining an undergraduate degree instead of pursuing a graduate degree;
  • you need more individual attention from advisors, as well as guidance to feel comfortable during studies;
  • you haven’t made a final decision about your major for the upcoming years of studying or haven’t set your academic goals yet.

H3 University Must be a Better Choice for You If:

  • you are eager about making acquaintances with a great number of new people and attending various events;
  • large classes are not a problem for you, as well as doing research work as an undergraduate student;
  • it is not a problem for you to pursue your interests on an individual basis;
  • teceiving a graduate degree is one of your expectations for the future.;
  • you have clear goals about your future career and academic preferences.

Don’t take it as absolute truth, though, as the above points are just general features. The difference between college and university can sometimes be slighter. For instance, some colleges can be much bigger in size than certain universities and have richer research tools. In some universities, such as Harvard, the undergraduate campus can be called a college and the whole institution – a university.

Moreover, there are other important factors that can influence your choice, such as school location, cost, a form of ownership, extracurriculars, etc.
So, be sure to conduct tailed research on every school that you consider for entering prior to making a decision based on its label. Of course, you are likely to succeed in any type of school. However, some of them may be more beneficial for you than others.

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