College vs. University: 5 Key Differences between Colleges and Universities


College and University are different terms in some countries for different degree types. These two terms may sometimes be confused and used interchangeably.

While many articles talk about the difference between colleges and universities in the US, we have to know that these two terms may also have different meanings in other countries, which adds to its confusion.

In this article, we will see five critical differences between colleges and universities and their different meanings in different countries.

Origins of the Terms: College and University

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines “college” as “an institution offering instruction, usually in a professional, vocational, or technical field.”

While the definition of “university” is “an institution of higher learning providing facilities for teaching and research and authorized to grant academic degrees.”

By these two general definitions, we can see that their slight difference is in their size and their facilities. Still, the encyclopedia of Britannica says that medieval universities, also known as “Studia generalia” which were accessible to students from all around Europe, gave rise to the contemporary Western University.

The first “studia” were made so clerks and monks could learn more than what the cathedral and monastic schools could offer. The main distinction between the “studio” and the schools from whence they evolved was the presence of foreign academics.

Italy was the first place where universities were built. In the ninth century, they were in Salerno, and in the eleventh century, they were in Bologna. Universities as we know them today started as scholastic guilds. They were modeled after the tradespeople’s guilds and the later guilds of foreigners in European cities, which grew up in the 1300s and 1400s in most of Europe’s major cities.

Historically, there was no such thing as a university as we know it now. As their Latin name implies, colleges began as alliances or groups within larger organizations.

European colleges often serve as students’ homes away from home, with dining halls, dormitories, libraries, and academic support services. In the beginning, these schools were started in France to help students who didn’t have enough money to attend a regular college. Early universities were in charge of keeping collections that would later become museums or places for scientific research. They also helped students study for exams.

Colleges emerged as separate entities when more and more universities opened in the West in the middle to the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Since it took the world’s top colleges hundreds of years to expand into their current size and complexity, it made more sense, from a purely economic and logistical standpoint, to establish smaller institutions rather than attempt to construct universities.

Therefore, smaller institutions were established to meet the local community’s needs and concentrate on undergraduate education without the high costs associated with storing and researching.

Thus, the College became its entity while still operating as its school inside a larger institution.

What is a college?

Generally speaking, a college is a place of higher learning where you may get a degree and training for a particular career, and it focuses on undergraduate degree programs.

Colleges often have fewer students, smaller campuses, and fewer academic programs than universities. Most of these institutions are independent, meaning they are not supported financially by the government. Therefore, many colleges may have strong religious ties and put less emphasis on research.

A broader definition of “college” includes community colleges, vocational schools, and technical institutes. A few of these schools provide bachelor’s degrees, but the vast majority only offer associate and certificate levels of education.

So, there are various sorts of colleges to compare, including:

  • Community Colleges
  • Liberal Arts Colleges
  • Career Colleges
  • Technical Schools
  • Trade Schools
  • Vocational Schools

As an example, Penn Foster Career School is a college that offers programs for first-year students that can lead to a diploma, a certificate, or an associate’s degree. Some people may call Penn Foster a college or even a university. Still, it is not a university because it does not offer graduate-level degrees like Masters and doctoral degrees. Most people call these places “technical schools” or “career schools,” even though they are colleges.

Four-year institutions with low student-to-faculty ratios and undergraduate-focused curricula are probably what first come to mind when most people think of colleges.

Some schools, like those in the liberal arts, provide a more well-rounded education by stressing the value of studying many disciplines. Alternatively, some universities focus only on a single academic field and offer degrees in engineering, graphic design, or the visual arts.

Pros and Cons of Colleges

Although colleges are smaller than universities, they have some benefits for students who tend to graduate from higher levels of education. Some of the pros of colleges are:

  1. When compared to four-year universities, the expense of attending a community college is far more manageable.
  2. Typically, colleges place a greater emphasis on educating undergraduates than they do on doing research.
  3. Besides finishing their general education requirements, students in two-year schools have extra time to consider their degree alternatives.
  4. Smaller class sizes enable professors to provide more individualized education and support.
  5. Ag a college degree may increase your access to job opportunities and more earnings in a way that college students get approximately $500,000 in additional revenues throughout their lives compared to individuals who stop their education at the high school level.

However, getting a college degree has many benefits, but it may have some cons too:

  1. Course offerings and program options at two-year institutions are often more restricted than those at four-year universities.
  2. A lack of diversity and problems with student involvement are common problems at smaller community colleges.
  3. Some small liberal arts institutions may even be more costly than more prominent universities since they can’t afford to give as much as scholarships and grants.
  4. Even if you graduate with transferrable skills, you still need to acquire the technical know-how necessary to do the job.
  5. The burden of repaying student loans sometimes drives graduates to move back in with their parents, putting off marriage, financial independence, and other important life events.

What is a university?

Universities may be either public or private and grant degrees at the undergraduate and graduate levels. These schools are well known for their vibrant and varied student bodies and often have huge campuses and a wide range of academic offerings.

The student body of a private university is generally much smaller than that at a public university, which might number in the tens of thousands.

Modern universities often have several schools or colleges focusing on a particular study area. For example, Harvard University is the parent company of graduate schools like Harvard Business School, Harvard Law School, Harvard Medical School, and so on. The Cornell University system includes the Cornell College of Business, the Cornell College of Engineering, and more.

College was first and most often used to mean a school for higher education. The second term, on the other hand, represents a group of experts in a particular field who work together. Universities often break up their academic programs into separate parts called “colleges,” which meet the second criterion.

Pros and Cons of Universities

Among the benefits of attending a university, we can mention these:

  1. You can choose from various programs and courses that best fit your skills, interests, and career goals.
  2. Campuses at universities are often very diverse, so you can meet and work with students, faculty, and staff from many different places.
  3. Most professors with a good reputation teach most classes, giving you a rich, active learning experience.
  4. Getting a bachelor’s or graduate degree can give you access to better-paying jobs.

Besides their benefits, universities may also have some disadvantages:

  1. Faculty may spend more time researching than teaching because they have to worry about keeping their jobs and their classes are significant.
  2. When you add up tuition, fees, room, board, and books, the cost of going to a four-year college is high, and many students end up with a lot of student debt.
  3. There aren’t enough teachers and classrooms at many prominent public universities, which makes it hard for students to sign up for a class before it’s complete.
  4. Some students love being in big, busy groups, but others may feel lost or alone, especially in classes with many people.

Key Differences Between College and University

Above all, it is essential to remind that “college” and “university” are often used to mean the same thing in America. And that can be hard to understand in some situations. But their differences remain in other countries and regions. For example, George DaPonte, in charge of international admissions at the University of Tampa in Florida, says that “Colegio” in Spanish means “high school.” Here, we can group the critical differences between colleges and universities based on these categories:

  1. Size: Universities are often larger than colleges.
  2. Duration of education: the duration of study in College is two years, while the time of education in universities is more than four years.
  3. Degrees and certifications: Normally, the College prepares you for University; colleges don’t give you a master’s or doctorate but can provide you with other credentials that show you’ve completed a particular specification.
  4. Expenses: While the costs in College are for two years and for the University, you have to spend four years; data shows that About 44 million Americans have student loans totaling more than $1.5 trillion. 45% of people with student loan debt say College wasn’t worth it. 10% of students have more than $40,000 in debt when they graduate, and 1% have more than $100,000 in debt.
  5. Quality of Education: Universities have graduate degree programs and related programs, and they must be separate from the undergraduate program and the University as a whole. They also need to have staff members whose main job is to run graduate and professional programs.

Take a look at the table below to see the university and colleges differences:

University College
Size Larger Smaller
Duration of education +4 Years 2 Years
Degrees and certifications Bachelor, Master, PhD Associate
Expenses It depends on the University It depends on the College
Quality of Education Higher and more Professional Undergraduate

Kinds of Degrees at Universities vs. Colleges

Associate, bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees are different degrees you can get in College and University. The primary type of college degree is an associate, but you will get a bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral in a university. Each college degree level’s length, requirements, and results are different. Each college degree fits the other personal and career goals of its students.

Knowing the different levels of college degrees can help you decide which will meet your needs and save you time and money.

Associate degrees in College fall into three groups:

    • Associate of applied sciences (AAS)
    • Associate of Arts (AA)
    • Associate of Science (AS)

University degrees fall into three general groups, and each one has different categories:

  • Bachelor Degree
    • Bachelor of Applied Science (BAS)
    • Bachelor of Architecture (B.Arch.)
    • Bachelor of Arts (BA)
    • Bachelor of Business Administration (BBA)
    • Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA)
    • Bachelor of Science (BS)
  • Master’s Degree
    • Master of Business Administration (MBA)
    • Master of Education (M.Ed.)
    • Master of Fine Arts (MFA)
    • Master of Laws (LL.M.)
    • Master of Public Administration (MPA)
    • Master of Public Health (MPH)
    • Master of Publishing (M.Pub.)
    • Master of Science (MS)
    • Master of Social Work (MSW)
  • Doctoral Degree
    • Doctor of Business Administration (DBA)
    • Doctor of Dental Surgery (DDS)
    • Doctor of Education (Ed.D.)
    • Doctor of Medicine (MD)
    • Doctor of Pharmacy (Pharm.D.)
    • Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)
    • Doctor of Psychology (Psy.D.)
    • Juris Doctor (JD)

Which one is better? a college or a university?

College or University? That is a question only you can answer.

A common misconception is that two-year colleges can’t compare to four-year universities. Both are equally rigorous intellectually, but a university may be a better option if you want more flexibility in your course selection.

There is a significant difference between high school and college education, with the former offering smaller class sizes and more one-on-one time with teachers. Prospective undergraduates, graduates, and even overseas students may discover the right school for them at either Yale or Columbia.

Remember that it is more important to choose a school where you will thrive than to attend a school with a prestigious name. Consider what you want to gain from further education, and then select a college or University accordingly.


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