What is the Difference Between a College and a University?

Difference between college and university


We often use the words “college” and “university” interchangeably. We say, “Yes, I’m going to college,” when we mean that we’re planning to attend the local state university. However, there is an actual difference between a college and a university.


This distinction can be important when it comes to understanding the level of education your student will get at each one.


Let’s dive in!



It’s Not About Public vs. Private

Let’s start with what the difference between a college and a university is not. It’s not about public vs. private schools!


Many people notice that a lot of private schools have the label “College” while public schools tend to be universities. That is a trend, but it’s not because a college is private and a university is public.


In fact, Harvard is a private school that bears the name “Harvard University,” while “The College of William and Mary” is a public institution.



What is a College?

Very simply, a college is a smaller school that typically only offers undergraduate degrees. They may have a more limited “menu” of academic programs due to their size.


However, that doesn’t mean a college education is not as good as a university. In fact, it may be better for some students, since there may be more one-on-one attention, a more close-knit student body, and other benefits.


In addition, a college may be outstanding at one or more specific degree programs, even if they aren’t as big or broad as a university. Don’t turn up your nose at a college – it could be perfect for your student!


Sometimes a school is called a “College” simply due to historical tradition, even though it has made the growth and transition into a university. An example of such a school in this situation is Dartmouth College.  


Although Dartmouth offers graduate degrees and has a separate medical school, business school, and engineering school, it still prefers to refer to itself as a college.


Some believe it goes back to a landmark decision in Dartmouth College v. Woodward which upheld the sanctity of the original charter of the college when the state of New Hampshire  attempted to force the college to become a public institution. Others believe Dartmouth continues using term college because of it’s primary dedication to undergraduate education vs. graduate level programs. 



What is a University?

A university indicates an institution that offers undergraduate and graduate degrees, such as associates degree, bachlor’s degree, and master’s degree, and may also have a medical or law school for students wishing to pursue professional degrees. 


Usually, universities have a more diverse offering of classes and programs than a college. In addition, universities tend to have a larger number of enrolled students. Examples of universities are schools such as University of Buffalo (SUNY), University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, and Loyola University Baltimore.




What’s The Difference Between a College and a University?

A university is generally a much larger school with a wide variety of academic programs on the undergraduate, graduate, and Ph.D. level. They may also offer professional programs such as law degrees, medical degrees, and more.


Many times a university has faculty that focus as much – or more – on research than they do on teaching. This can be an important drawback to getting an undergraduate degree at a university. There may be top-flight professors, but it can be hard to get face-to-face time with them.


Many times universities are well-known for one or more of their academic programs, which can be a draw for your student. Make sure you research whether undergraduate classes are taught by TAs or actual professors.


A larger student body often means a more diverse group of people and more options for student life, so your student may enjoy those aspects of a university. However, it’s also easy to feel lost among many thousands of other students.



Choose the Right College or University For Your Student

A college and a university can provide very different learning environments and teaching styles for your child. Both a college and a university can provide an excellent education. It’s really up to finding the right fit for your student.


One important aspect of that fit is financial aid. Some colleges and universities are much more generous with merit and/or need-based aid than others. If you want to find the most generous schools for your family’s situation, look into our College Free Money Finder tool today!









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