During my college planning talks and presentations throughout the year, I use both the terms college and university. For purposes of the presentation, I usually use them interchangeably. Whether you attended a college or university, or you plan on sending your child to one or the other, one of the questions that I often get is, “What’s the difference between a college and a university?” So, I thought it would be a good idea to clarify some of the similarities and differences in this post. Realize, however, that these are generalizations and that sometimes the line is fuzzy between the two.
Colleges usually focus primarily, or exclusively, on undergraduate degrees. Two year institutions, like county colleges, often offer certificate programs and two year associate degrees. Four year colleges, offer four year bachelor’s degree programs. Colleges are usually smaller than universities in both size and enrollment. They may also have a more narrow focus or degree specialization. A college may be a part of a larger university system. In fact, some “four year” colleges grow to the point of actually being a university (often by expanding their offerings to the graduate degree level). In some cases, they still retain the name “college” as part of their desire to hold on to tradition (often at the pressure of alumni).
Universities offer both undergraduate and graduate degrees. In addition to bachelor’s degree programs, they offer graduate programs leading to master’s and PhD degrees. In some cases, these institutions will offer a “straight through” program by combining the undergraduate bachelor’s program with the master’s program curriculum to graduate students with a master’s in about five years. Many universities also have specialized programs that lead to degrees in careers like medicine (MD, DO) and law (JD). Universities tend to have more diverse offerings of classes and programs, since they have much larger enrollments and campuses. Although colleges may be involved in various levels of academic research, universities have a larger focus on graduate degrees and are often more widely recognized for their research and facilities.
For students seeking a certificate program or associate degree, the choice is usually limited to a two year college. The choice of attending a four year college or university at the undergraduate level is a more personal decision that should be based on how well their academic program prepares the student, class size, graduation rates, career placement rates, net cost and other factors like student social support and amenities; rather than choosing solely based on it being called a “college” or “university.” And, for those looking to obtain a graduate degree, their choice should be based on many of these same factors… although most students will find that these advanced programs are offered almost exclusively at universities (whether or not that institution has retained the name “college” for tradition or other reasons).
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