What is the Difference Between a College and a University: The Key Distinctions to Consider

What is the Difference Between a College and a University: The Key Distinctions to Consider

What Is the Difference Between a College and a University?

The answer to "What is the difference between a college and a university?" can vary based on where you are in the world, but we have all the possibilities in one place!

When it comes to pursuing education past high school, there are numerous available schools and institutions that people can choose to attend. Between colleges, universities, and vocational schools, it can be tricky to know which type of institution is the best one to attend—or even what the distinct differences between them are.

In the United States, many people refer to their post-high school education as "going to college," even if they're technically attending a university. Additionally, other countries around the world use these terms differently, which can confuse international students and also people looking into higher education in their home country.

If you've ever wondered "What is the difference between a college and a university?"—stay tuned. Our article has all the information you need to know.

Colleges vs. University

Even if someone is asking "What is the difference between a college and a university?", then there's a strong chance that they already understand that both institutions provide higher education. However, in the United States, colleges tend to be on a smaller scale, while universities generally offer graduate degrees above the bachelor's level, in addition to undergraduate programs.

This distinction is one of the main aspects that separates these two types of institutions, but there's more to it than that.

Degree Programs

Since the provided degree programs are what truly sets colleges and universities apart, we'll start there. For the most part, a college institution won't offer anything past bachelors degree programs. They may, however, provide associates degrees.

Some two-year colleges only provide associates programs and prerequisite courses that can transfer to another school. These institutions often fall under the classification of "community colleges," and they can be less expensive than larger schools.

While this may seem limited, a college can still have a variety of campuses and areas of study available. However, a college will generally not provide any graduate education—students will need to attend a university for that.

Universities then will provide graduate degrees, such as masters and doctorates. Universities also tend to provide at least bachelors programs, just like colleges. Whether a university offers two-year degrees will depend on the specific school.

Just like colleges, universities in the United States can have programs of study in a variety of disciplines, or they can specialize in a field.

Private and Public Institutions

Another point of commonality between colleges and universities is that they can be open for public attendance or be a closed campus. This factor depends wholly on the policies of the school, and the status as a college or university has nothing to do with it.

Associated Prestige and Educational Vale

For the most part, people tend to view universities as having more prestige than their college counterparts. In some ways, this association is due to how universities can have much larger programs and resources available. In turn, people may assume that a university may be the preferred option between the two and provide a better education.

In reality, a college and a university can provide equal levels of education. That's not to say that all post-secondary schools are entirely comparable, but having "college" in the name shouldn't be enough to discount an institution. Students should focus on finding a school that fits their goals and educational and financial needs.

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The Blurry Line Between College and University

For the most part, the distinctions outlined above will help you tell the difference between a university and a college. However, several schools have the qualifications to be a university, but they still choose to keep "college" in their name for the sake of tradition.

St. Joseph's College in New York, Union College in Ohio, and Boston College are examples of institutions that all qualify as universities, even if their names don't reflect it. As only a few US states (like New Jersey) have laws about what a name a school may have, it's possible that a college may have more programs available than its name suggests.

University Qualifications

While a university may choose to keep "college" in its name, the school must meet specific qualifications to become an official university. Those areas of requirements are:

Programs: A university must have an undergraduate studies program for bachelor's degrees, as well as graduate programs for at least three different types of professional or academic fields.

Organization: In addition to having a graduate program, that program must be separate from the undergraduate one, with its staff primarily responsible for administering professional programs.

Resources: The school must have the correct funding, equipment, and facilities to properly run their available programs.

Accreditation: A university must meet all state requirements for licenses and accreditation to become a university-level institute.

Without meeting these four cornerstones, a college cannot become a university, no matter what other resources or programs it has available.

Universities and Colleges Around the World

So far, we've answered the question of "what is the difference between a college and a university?" in regards to the United States. However, in other parts of the world, these terms hold different meanings.

United Kingdom

The United Kingdom is one of the most substantial examples of this idea, where "university" is the term in much more common usage—students will say that they are "attending university" (or even the colloquial "uni") rather than saying they are "going to college," as is common in the US. Part of this distinction is because of how the institutions differ in the UK.

There, the term "university" is the larger institution that awards students degrees upon completing their studies, while "colleges" are the schools found within that university. Additionally, a college in the UK may also be another accommodation within a university, even if the facility isn't related to education.

Previously in the UK, a "college" referred to secondary schools, and that sometimes still applies to individual institutions today where students can receive advanced qualifications.


For Canadians, "college" often means a school with vocational, technical, scientific, and artistic education provided by the state. They also use the term "university" to refer to schools that are entirely independent and provide learning on their merit, rather than through the resources of the state.


As another English speaking country, Australia also uses the terms "college" and "university" to refer to things in the realm of education. For the most part, an Australian college refers to secondary schools, rather than schools within a university or vocational institutions. It's much more common for Australians to call their post-secondary education "faculty."

Confusion for International Students

While even native speakers of English may not fully know the distinction between a college and a university, the variety of uses for these terms in different countries happens to complicate matters further. For students who are planning to study abroad, the various applications of these words can lead to confusion in knowing which schools to consider.

Students who don't have English as their first language can have additional complications, since unfamiliarity with the language may be a factor. For example, the Spanish word Colegio refers to secondary institutions like high schools, which may lead these students to ignore a US college that may have been a good fit, just because it wasn't a university.

The best approach to take if you plan to study abroad is to use this guide to understand how these terms work in the country you intend to travel to, as well as thoroughly research what your potential school can offer you as a student.

Should You Attend a College or a University?

While many US-English speakers may use college and university interchangeably, we've clearly outlined the distinctions between the two. But since these two types of institutions are different, is one better than the other to attend?

While it would be nice, there is no single right answer to that question. Each student has their own goals when attending school, and a college may be a better fit in terms of cost, program, culture, and more areas for one student than a university, and vice versa. And since some "colleges" are in effect universities, even graduate students can't dismiss their possibilities.

The best thing to do as a prospective student is to research the type of program you want to be in, as well as other factors that will determine your capability. If you can, applying to both colleges and universities will not only give you a better chance of being accepted to a program you want because you've looked at more schools but potentially give you more possibilities.

Even students who have yet to pick their areas of study can benefit from both types of schools since the name of an institution doesn't necessarily indicate the variety of undergraduate programs and degrees it may have available. The goal should always be to find a suitable fit for you, rather than focusing on the institution's name.

Hopefully this guide to "What is the difference between a college and university?" has helped you understand these terms and their use in different parts of the world!