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

April 08, 2019

In the U.S., many people use the terms “college” and “university” interchangeably. Here’s how a college is different from a university.

What’s the difference between a college and a university? Americans often use the words “college” and “university” to mean the same thing, with “college” being a catch-all term to cover all subjects related to higher education. While there can be lots of overlap between colleges and universities, there are a few distinctions. Let’s take a closer look!  

What’s a College?

In the United States, the term “college” can refer to many aspects of higher education. In sum, college can mean:

  • A specific independent degree-granting institution of higher education (e.g., College of the Holy Cross)
  • A subsidiary school within a larger institution (e.g., the College of Engineering at Bucknell University)
  • Any institution of higher education (e.g., “starting the college application process”, “paying for college,” etc.)

What’s a University?

A university indicates a degree-granting institution of higher education that typically has a wide range of academic disciplines and degree programs. Students enrolled at a university may be pursuing an associate’s degree, bachelor’s degree, master’s degree, JD, MD, Ph.D., or post-graduate study. Additionally, a university may be comprised of several colleges (e.g., the Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences at Southern Methodist University).

Overseas, the term “university” is used similarly to how Americans use “college” (e.g., “At university, I studied physics”).

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

As a general rule, universities tend to be larger than colleges and offer a wider range of degrees (especially for graduate degrees and post-graduate study). Of course, there are exceptions.

Take each school on a case-by-case basis. Some places will be lax in how the terms are used: Boston College, for example, is technically a university (and also technically located in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, not Boston). Other places, like New Jersey, will have legally mandated definitions of how “college” and “university” may be used. Still other places may actually qualify as a university, but use “college”, “school”, or “institute” because of its history and tradition (e.g., Colorado School of Mines).

If you have questions about the status of the college or university you’re considering, ask the admissions team or even your tour guide during a campus visit. And if it’s a college in name only, find out if that has any bearing on the school’s academic reputation or student outcomes. (Our hunch is it doesn’t--sometimes a name is just a name!)

Should I Go to a College or a University?

This is really up to you! Given the interchangeability of how “college” and “university” are used, especially here in the United States, the Edmit team recommends not putting too much importance on a name. Instead of looking at the designation of “college” or “university” as an indicator of quality, instead focus on the actual quality and value of the school, based on a given institution’s academic rigor, student retention, internship opportunities, graduation rates, alumni satisfaction, and job placement. Because while there may be differences between a college and a university, the real question to ask is whether that given institution, regardless of name, seems like it will be a good fit for you.