Many students are unsurprisingly perplexed by the question: What is the difference between a college and a university?
Both terms refer to educational institutions where students can pursue further studies, but they have different scopes and serve different functions. These differences not only exist in their meanings but also vary from region to region. In order to not start getting confused ourselves, let’s delve into what really differentiates a college from a university by first looking into the terms independently of one another.
Defining a College
The term “college” originates from the Roman word collegium, which denotes a group of people living together under a similar set of rules for a common purpose. In many countries, the term ‘college’ is used to also refer to ‘secondary school’.
Keeping that in mind, a college, in its essence, is an educational institution that offers degree and diploma courses to its students. Colleges can be autonomous or part of a university, but in the latter case, the university usually hands out the degrees and diplomas.
Additionally, colleges are typically smaller in size than universities, often resulting in a more personalized learning experience with more attention from faculty members. They can be either publicly or privately owned. The scope of a college is often narrower than that of a university, as it offers courses only in specific areas, often not providing any graduate options.
In the US, it’s very common for universities to use “college” to refer to their undergraduate programs (Harvard College vs Harvard University) as well as individual departments (UPenn’s College of Arts and Sciences). This is why people colloquially say that undergraduate students are in college rather than university.
Examples of colleges include: Williams, Amherst, Pomona, etc.
Defining a University
Universities, on the other hand, are large institutions that offer both undergraduate and graduate programs. They can be either public or private. Public universities tend to be larger and can have tens of thousands of students enrolled while private universities are smaller and more exclusive with lower acceptance rates.
Amongst the undergrad population, the students are there to receive bachelor’s degrees in a 4-year program. Graduate students can be seeking either master’s degrees or doctorates. Universities tend to be known for their large campuses and vibrant campus life. They also tend to focus more on research.
Examples of universities include: Princeton, Stanford, UC Berkeley, etc.
Key Differences between a College and a University
Here’s a simple snapshot to help differentiate the two:
- Size and Scope: A university has a wider scope than a college, offering a variety of courses and programs across multiple fields as well as a larger/more diverse student body
- Research Opportunities: Universities often offer research programs, unlike colleges
- Affiliation: Colleges can be autonomous or affiliated with a university, while universities don’t need to affiliate with another institution
- Funding: Universities are usually publicly funded while colleges are private
- Leadership: The head of a college is typically known as a “dean” or “director,” while a university is led by a “vice-chancellor”
In the end, whether a college or a university is the right choice depends on the student’s educational goals and preferences. Regardless of the choice, both institutions serve the purpose of providing higher education and opportunities for further learning!
The term college can also refer to a community or technical college. While these types of programs can offer 4-year bachelor’s degrees, most degrees are 2-year associate degrees.
Photos from OpenClipart-Vectors under the Creative Commons. Edited under Creative Commons guidelines.