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College Vs. University: What Is the Difference?

Michael McCarthy

Written By: Michael McCarthy

Published: 8/15/2022

Whatever kind of school you're looking for, you can find either a college or a university that fits the bill: large and small, public and private, parochial and secular, online and campus-based. So what's the difference, and how can you choose which type of institution to attend?

Schools that only feature undergraduate education are typically called colleges; a college may still offer graduate degrees, but a university nearly always will. However, even lexicographers often use the two terms interchangeably. Read on to help you decide whether the name is important to your own college search.

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What Is a College?

"College" has many meanings, but three are especially relevant to higher learning. According to Merriam-Webster's definitions, a college can be any of the following.

  • A higher education institution that confers bachelor's degrees
  • A component of a larger university that offers programs in a focused area, such as a college of business or college of liberal arts and sciences
  • A vocational school that educates students for a specific trade

On our site, we often use the word "college" in the first sense — an institution that grants degrees to students. Even though Merriam-Webster specifically mentions bachelor's degrees, we sometimes use "college" as a catchall to mean schools that confer both undergraduate and graduate degrees.

Types of Colleges

As mentioned, a number of designators can apply to either colleges or universities, which can blur the distinction. However, some kinds of institutions are usually classified as colleges rather than universities. We describe these below.

Institution Type Credentials Conferred Purpose
Community college
  • Certificates
  • Associate degrees
  • Sometimes bachelor's degrees
These schools provide postsecondary education that usually tops out at two-year degrees, which is why they're sometimes called "junior colleges." Nearby residents comprise the traditional student body, but many of these schools now offer online programs to anybody who wants to enroll. Community colleges receive funding from their local community's tax base, so online students outside of the area pay significantly more to attend.
Liberal arts college
  • Sometimes certificates
  • Bachelor's degrees

Unsurprisingly, these colleges offer the bulk of their degrees in liberal arts disciplines: humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences. The focus is on producing well-rounded, inquisitive graduates who can apply their knowledge and skills to a variety of careers rather than on training them for an occupation.

Liberal arts colleges tend to be smaller institutions than universities, with faculty under less pressure to produce cutting-edge research.

Technical and vocational college
  • Certificates
As the name suggests, these professional schools provide narrow courses of study that aim to prepare graduates for a specific vocation. Many technical and vocational colleges focus on one trade, such as automotive repair or electrical work.

What Is a University?

"University" has a narrower meaning than "college." Merriam-Webster considers universities to be academic institutions that confer both undergraduate and graduate degrees. This is generally true, but it's important to note that many schools with "college" in their names also offer graduate degrees.

Types of Universities

As with colleges, some kinds of institutions are typically referred to as universities. We've listed two of these below — one is defined by its original funding source and the other by its stated function.

Institution Type Credentials Conferred Purpose
Land-grant university
  • Sometimes certificates
  • Bachelor's degrees
  • Master's degrees
  • Doctoral degrees
These schools initially served to train people for technical and agricultural careers in the 19th century. The name comes from their initial source of funding: The federal government gave each university parcels of land that it could sell for a profit. Today, many of the most prominent public universities in each state have their origins as land-grant institutions, though a few private universities also got their start in this way.
Research university
  • Sometimes certificates
  • Bachelor's degrees
  • Master's degrees
  • Doctoral degrees
Research universities hire faculty who they believe will conduct and publish innovative research. Professors still teach courses at all levels, but they're expected to "publish or perish" at these institutions — that is, stay on the cutting edge if they want to secure tenure. Students can often find opportunities to work as research assistants during their studies.

What Are the Differences Between a College and a University?

The main difference is only a difference some of the time: Colleges may or may not offer graduate degrees, while nearly all universities do offer at least a few. Beyond this, it's mainly a matter of what an institution chooses to call itself.

Colleges may or may not offer graduate degrees, while nearly all universities do offer at least a few. Beyond this, it's mainly a matter of what an institution chooses to call itself.

One common misconception is that universities are larger institutions than colleges. In fact, several community colleges make the list of institutions with the highest enrollment in the country.

Designations That Can Apply to Both

In higher education, some qualifiers can apply to both colleges and universities. Some of these designations, such as HBCU status, often serve as core pieces of a school's identity, while others may be important for a small subset of students.

Asian American and Native American Pacific Islander-Serving Institution (AANAPISI) The AANAPISI designation began in 2007 so that schools with student bodies of at least 10% Asian and Pacific Islander descent could receive federal grants. The school can use these funds to improve its educational experience.
Hispanic-serving institution (HSI) To receive federal money, HSIs must serve a population of at least 25% people of Hispanic descent. Note that while the government uses the term "Hispanic," many students prefer "Latinx," which excludes people of Spanish-speaking European descent with no ties to Latin or Central America.
Historically Black college or university (HBCU) HBCUs date back to the 19th century, including a few that predate the U.S. Civil War. They initially served an exclusively Black student population, but today nearly a quarter of their students come from other backgrounds. HBCUs can be either private or public, but both varieties receive federal funding.
Title IX institution These schools are named after a portion of a law passed in 1972 that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex, since amended to include gender. Essentially, schools that receive any federal funding must agree to abide by Title IX. This includes enforcing laws and statutes regarding sexual violence on campus.
Tribal college or university (TCU) Each of the nation's 32 TCUs is chartered by a federally recognized tribe and has a student body of mainly indigenous people. Native students at these institutions complete their degrees at much higher rates than they do at non-TCU schools.
Yellow Ribbon school This term designates institutions that provide tuition benefits to military veterans above and beyond the Post-9/11 GI Bill.

Is It Better to Go to a College or University?

There's no objective answer to this question because your circumstances and priorities differ from the next person's. But ultimately, what matters is that you apply to schools that have degree programs, faculty, and services that feel right for your educational and career goals. Whether an institution calls itself a college or university is secondary.

However, you may not know which types of schools to research in the first place. Below, we've listed a few questions you can ask yourself to help determine which kinds of schools appeal to you.

Am I pursuing an associate degree?

A community college is often the best option for earning an associate degree. These schools tend to cost much less than four-year colleges, especially if you attend your local school. Even enrolling in an online community college program is often more affordable than an associate at a four-year institution. As long as your college is institutionally accredited, you'll likely have little trouble transferring your credits into a bachelor's program in the future.

Do I want a rounded college education or to focus narrowly on my major?

Nearly all schools have some general education requirements, such as one or two writing composition, science, and math courses for non-majors. But liberal arts colleges often feature comprehensive general-education requirements with more courses in the humanities, arts, and social sciences. They also tend to have smaller class sizes with more dialogue and less emphasis on gathering data.

Do I want to major in science, technology, mathematics, or engineering (STEM)?

As with any other factor in your college search, there's no hard-and-fast rule about where to study for a STEM degree. But you may want to consider a research university because these institutions often pour money into maintaining state-of-the-art laboratories and research centers. You may have more research opportunities and chances to learn from professors at the cutting edge of their fields.

FAQs about the Differences between Colleges and Universities

What Is the Difference between a Community College and a University?

Community colleges mainly feature associate programs, whereas universities offer undergraduate degrees and usually a range of graduate degrees. A community college may have some bachelor's programs, but this is uncommon, and they don't have any graduate-degree options.

What Is a College Within a University?

"College" in this sense refers to a group of related academic programs. For example, a university might have the following colleges within its structure.

How Many Years Do Colleges and Universities Last?

Both colleges and universities may offer degrees that take anywhere from two years for an associate to 10 years for a doctorate. The number of required credits differs by degree type, not by the name of the institution that offers it.

Is Harvard a College or University?

Harvard has been a university since the late 1700s, although it was founded as Harvard College. Today, Harvard College is the administrative unit of Harvard University that contains all of its undergraduate programs. Therefore, Harvard's undergraduate students attend both the college and university, but its graduate students are affiliated only with Harvard University.

Bottom Line

In many cases, you can use "college" and "university" interchangeably. The primary difference is that universities usually have graduate programs, while colleges don't always offer advanced degrees. In addition, there are some institutions that are nearly always called by one term or the other, such as a community college or land-grant university. Ultimately, one type of school isn't better than the other — you just need to understand what you want in order to get the best college education for you.

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