In many countries, people consider colleges as educational institutions with a narrower academic scope and lower academic degrees than universities. On the opposite, universities are considered the last and highest point to upgrade your education degree. 

Generally, these assumptions are true. But, you may find colleges that will offer full undergraduate and graduate degree programs. Also, sometimes, a college can be a better fit for your future career than a university. 

This article will help you better understand the differences between a university and college and maybe navigate you through a new pool of choices for your next school. 

The History of Origin for Two Terms

The word "university" originated from the Latin phrase 'Universitas magistrorum et scholarium' which is translated into "community of teachers or scholars." The term originated in the period between 1250 CE and 1300 CE. The term "college" originated later, in the mid 14th century, again from the Latin word "collegium.

Generally, the first colleges in the US's history were funded by religious organizations and were proposed to train higher ranked people in society for leadership positions. Over time, the necessity of education for the blue-collar workers arose the need to address the educational demands at lower costs.

For this purpose, junior colleges were formed, which continue to operate today mainly as community colleges. Other higher educational institutions continued to evolve up to the current abundance of opportunities universities provide.

This quick historical overview may be the reason behind the notion people have about colleges. Many students, especially outside the US, may skip an institution containing "college" in its name because they consider its academic status and opportunities are not very high. 

Read on to learn about the current differences between the two terms and what you may expect under each. 

What Are Modern Colleges?

You should assume different things under the term college in different countries. Generally, a college can refer to a high school, independent higher educational institution, or a part of a large university. The distinguishing factor of colleges is that they provide only undergraduate degrees.

In the modern world, there are the following main types of colleges:

  • Liberal Arts Colleges: offer studies in literature, history, mathematics, languages, etc. Those kinds of colleges usually offer 4-year Bachelor's programs.
  • Community Colleges: offer two-year associate degree studies, after which you can apply for a Bachelor's degree.
  • Vocational colleges: offer specialized study programs in particular industries or professions and usually provide certificates above the completion.
  • In some countries, universities are also considered colleges, offering both undergraduate and graduate studies.
  • Arts colleges: offer study programs in photography, music, art, or related fields.
  • Single-sex colleges: there are not many of those, but you can find colleges separately for boys and girls.
  • Religiously affiliated colleges: Such colleges are connected to religious faith and may include activities impacting students' everyday studies.
  • Specialized mission colleges: they have certain goals in the core of their operation, such as having at least 25 % Hispanic students for Hispanic-serving institutions. 

Like universities, colleges can be private and public, and that's not the right assumption that colleges are generally private. Public colleges are more affordable due to government funding compared to private ones, in which student fees cover maintenance costs. 

Though most colleges provide undergraduate programs, there are exception colleges providing also graduate programs, such as The College of William and Mary, Dartmouth College, and St. Joseph's College.

Different Meanings of College in the US and UK

In the US, college is used to describe a post-high school educational institution with an associate or bachelor's degree. In the UK and Commonwealth countries, any post-high-school educational institution, except for a university, is called a college. Also, those groups of countries may name a high school or secondary school as a college. 

It is relatively more common for US universities to call their divisions "colleges," whereas UK universities usually call them "faculty." Generally, one may often hear "college student" expression in the US even if a student is enrolled in university. In daily conversations, the US people use college and universities as synonymous terms. That's why most often, non-academic communities may refer to them as being the same.  

How is University Different from College?

A repetition of what was already written, the most important difference is that college mainly offers undergraduate degrees and universities offer graduate degrees. Consequently, universities usually are bigger both in physical size and the number of enrolled students.

As universities offer both undergraduate and graduate programs, they may combine the course durations and provide accelerated graduate programs. For example, one can study 4 (bachelor's) + 1 (master's) to gain a full graduate degree. Colleges do not have this option. You should graduate from the entire 4-year study program and then apply to a full 2-year graduate program.

Universities offer a wider variety of courses and majors, whereas colleges usually have either narrow scope or are specialized in certain spheres. You may sometimes meet different colleges under the same university.

Universities usually provide more research opportunities, as well as more condensed student life and activities. However, do not treat this point as absolute proof that your college life will be less engaging. In the modern competition, many colleges try to equal the benefits the students may gain from the university. 

Which One is a Better Choice?

The success of the choice is individual. As you see above, you may gain a graduate degree in your interested field in college and do not necessarily need university. On the other side, you might want to benefit from a wider choice of courses and student life activities that universities provide. 

Let's try to hint to you which institution is better for you based on the criteria you value the most. 

You may fit better in college if:

1. You are not planning to take a graduate degree in the future and are looking for a more affordable way to study a certain profession.
2. You are looking to gain a certificate or associate degree in a shorter period than 4-year-bachelor's program.
3. You prefer a smaller class with a more personalized approach from instructors.

You may fit better in a university if:

1. You want to have direct access to graduate programs with your undergraduate study grades and benefit from accelerated programs.
2. You want to shape a network from a more diversified group of people.
3. You want to have a wider choice of majors and course structures, as well as better research opportunities. 
4. You are ambitious to have the highest academic education for better career opportunities.

The list of the best colleges and universities for 2021 may additionally support you in making a right decision. Regardless of what you will choose, a decision to study is already a great one! 


Published on Jan 15, 2021