College vs University – What is the Difference?

November 7, 2022

Outside of the higher education community, few can answer the question: What is the difference between a college and a university? In the United States, it is common for the words “university” and “college” to be used somewhat interchangeably. However, there are characteristics that typically differ between “college” and “university” when the terms are being used technically. That said, there are exceptions to the broad rules of what qualifies as a college vs university. In the following blog, we will explain the difference between the terms college vs university.

What is a College?

Not only is the term “college” often confused with “university”, but there are also many subgroups with that umbrella category. For examples there are:

  • Community Colleges that offer two year degrees.
  • Public and private colleges that vary greatly in cost.
  • Two-year and Four-year colleges
  • Liberal arts colleges

Colleges tend to be more focused on providing a broad liberal arts education. This can involve forays into the humanities, social sciences, natural sciences, mathematics, the arts, and foreign language.

Some colleges cater exclusively to undergraduate students. Examples include:

However, this is not always the case. Some colleges do offer a number of graduate programs as well. Examples of schools in the category include:

  • Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut presently offers graduate degree programs in English, Public Policy, and American Studies.
  • Middlebury College in Vermont grants master’s degrees in English, International Studies, and Foreign Language.

What is a University?

One primary distinction that makes a school a “university” is that it offers both undergraduate and graduate degree programs. Many universities offer master’s and PhD programs in a variety of areas. To cite a few examples:

  • Arizona State University boasts 400 graduate degrees. This includes offerings in business, education and teaching, architecture and construction, and STEM.
  • Northwestern University offers graduate programs in 70+ disciplines. Some areas offer various degree levels. One can pursue a master’s degree in neurobiology. However, in physics or mechanical engineering, students can pursue a master’s or PhD.
  • University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has 15 schools and colleges, eight of which cater to the almost 35,000 undergraduate students. Roughly 22,000 graduate students call UIUC home, with education, engineering, and business programs being major draws.
  • Lastly, with 140 areas of study for graduate students, UCLA has programs in everything from Archeology to Portuguese to Urban Planning.

Many universities also run their own law or medical schools. For example:

  • Duke University runs the Duke University School of Medicine. They also run the Duke University School of Law.
  • The College of William & Mary also runs the William & Mary Law School. However, this institution does not have its own medical school.

College vs University

A college is traditionally:

  • Primarily focused on undergraduate education.
  • Employs professors whose primary job is to teach undergraduates.
  • Smaller in size. Often between 1,000 and 3,000 students.
  • Class sizes are often smaller as well.
  • While some colleges may field big-time sports teams, many operate outside of NCAA Division I.

A university is traditionally:

  • Focused on both undergraduate and graduate/professional education.
  • Employs professors who have teaching and research duties.
  • Larger in size, often catering to more than 3,000 students and up to 60,000.
  • Some classes are likely to be delivered in large lecture halls. This is particularly true of introductory courses.
  • More likely to have Division I athletic programs.

Colleges that are part of Universities

Quite often, larger universities are divided up into a number of colleges/schools. Let’s take the example of Carnegie Mellon University which is divided into seven separate colleges/schools. The various colleges within the larger university are as follows:

  1. College of Engineering.
  2. College of Fine Arts.
  3. Dietrich College of Humanities & Social Sciences.
  4. Heinz College of Information Systems and Public Policy.
  5. Mellon College of Science.
  6. School of Computer Science.
  7. Tepper School of Business.

Boston College vs Boston University 

Even when you understand all of the general rules of what constitutes a university or college, there are cases that will still seem nonsensical. We use the example of Boston College vs Boston University to illustrate this point.

Boston College is considered one the only 115 “Research 1” universities in the nation. BC enrolls 9,500 undergraduates and another 5,500 graduate students. By comparison, Boston University is a larger school with a total student body of almost 37,000. Still, nothing about Boston College should qualify it as a “college”. So, what gives? In this case, Boston College has elected to continue to use that name as a reflection of its historical status as a liberal arts college.

Honors Colleges

Many state universities and even some private schools accept a select group of students into an honors college. Honors colleges (or programs) are usually more selective than the university at large. They tend to offer smaller class sizes, special research opportunities, and living/learning communities.

Visit our blog: Best Honors Colleges & Programs to learn more.

College vs University — Which is the best choice for you?

The college/university search and admissions process should involve honing in on a number of important characterizes that appeal to you. First and foremost, you’ll want to make sure that the institutions you are interested in offer your academic major(s) of interest. Additionally, you will want to consider geographic location, size, career services offerings, graduate outcomes, admissions chances, and extracurricular opportunities.

Depending on your preferences, a college or university may be of greater appeal. However, you need to keep in mind that pure nomenclature—college vs university—does not always perfectly capture a given school.