What Is the Difference Between a College and a University?

What Is the Difference Between a College and a 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!


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  • Amherst College
  • Dartmouth College
  • Williams College
  • Claremont McKenna College
  • Grinnell College
  • University of Wisconsin
  • University of Maryland
  • Cornell University
  • Boston University
  • Penn State University

In most cases colleges are private schools and universities are a combination of private and public entities.


Is a College and University the Same Thing?

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 one from 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 those offered at 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 the term college because of its 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 associate’s degree, bachelor’s degree, and master’s degree, and may also have a medical or law school for students wishing to pursue professional degrees. In addition, a university can also be comprised of various colleges.

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.


Which One Is Better: College or 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 ( teacher’s assistants) 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.

If your student has a preference, and is unsure about the college or university they’re considering, contact the Admissions Office.

You might even ask your tour guide about it when taking a college tour.

You may find out that a school being designated as a college won’t really have an impact on its reputation or on the education your student will receive there.

Some states, like New Jersey, for example, will have a legal definition and set parameters for schools.


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.

And 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 Insights tool today.






Anna Spooner

Anna Spooner has been writing professionally since 2011. She's a professional writer and blogger specializing in finance and insurance.