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You’ve finally reached an exciting time in your life when you’re beginning to seek out higher education! As you’ve applied to various institutions, you may have noticed that some have the word “college” built into their name while others use the term “university.” What’s the difference between colleges and universities? While Americans use “college” and “university” as interchangeable words, there are some important distinctions between them. 

Colleges and universities can be equally prestigious academically, but the main distinction is that universities tend to be larger, offering more degree types and programs. Here, we’ll discuss college vs. university in more detail and discuss the types of colleges below, so you know what kind of school will be best for you.

What Is a College?

So, what is the difference between a college and a university, and what does it mean for you?

A *college is a higher education institution offering two- and four-year undergraduate degrees. In the U.S., the term can refer to community colleges, liberal arts colleges, and technical schools. Colleges can stand alone or be housed under a university, and they usually have smaller populations of students. These types of institutions are often private, but some are public and receive state funding. Students sometimes seek out colleges because many provide the opportunity for specialized education.

*Here’s where things get a little murky — foreign countries have different definitions of “college;” in the UK, a college is a place for 16-year-olds to prepare for their entrance to a university. In Spanish, college refers to high school. For this reason, international students may not think to apply to colleges that they otherwise would have if they’d known it was a post-secondary institution. It can be also confusing that, in the U.S., anyone attending a post-secondary institution is called a “college student,” even if they’re not attending a college. 


  • Smaller class sizes for more intimate interactions
  • Sometimes more affordable than a university
  • Focused on getting students into specific careers


  • Limited to no graduate programs; class and curriculum options limited
  • Private colleges receive little to no state funding for research opportunities
  • Different than the traditional college experience

Liberal Arts Colleges

Liberal arts colleges introduce students to a wide range of academic disciplines, including math, art, science, and humanities, to equip them with skills that could transfer to many different industries. Other types of colleges may be centered around a single discipline, such as graphic design. If your interests are too diverse to narrow down to a single concentration, you may find this type of college to be a good fit for you.

Technical Colleges

A technical college is a skills-focused, two-year institution designed to help students prepare for a career in a specific field, such as cosmetology, HVAC, welding, etc. Students of these schools will receive certifications as opposed to degrees. Trade school students do not have to take any general education classes and can jump right into specialization. Technical colleges are known for having affordable tuition, intimate campuses, and programs that fast-track students to the workforce.

Community Colleges

Community colleges are institutions that confer two-year associate’s degrees and, like technical colleges, have low tuition costs and intimate class sizes. In order to save money, some students complete the first two years of their four-year degree at a community college and later transfer the credits to a four-year institution. 

What Is a University?

Universities tend to be bigger and more diverse than colleges, offering a wide range of programs and degree types up to the doctoral level. They often host tens of thousands of students at once and can be public or private. Students focused on academics usually prefer universities over colleges because they are home to world-class faculty members and have the funding to carry out extensive research projects. 

In order to receive university status, a college must meet several criteria for five consecutive years:

  • Get accreditation and any required licensure from the state
  • Have the resources and financial means to support graduate studies 
  • Offer a wide range of academic programs for the undergraduate and graduate levels in at least three professional fields
  • Hire staff members who are qualified and capable of administering graduate programs


  • More programs and degree types offered
  • More extensive and advanced facilities 
  • Greater opportunities for research


  • Bigger class sizes and competitive class registration
  • High cost of tuition, books, fees, and housing
  • Professors may be more involved in research than in teaching

What About Colleges Within Universities?

In some cases, universities refer to their constituent parts as colleges; for example, Boston University has a College of Engineering, a College of Fine Arts, and so on, which make up the university as a whole. In this case, students are attending a college and a university simultaneously! It’s no wonder there’s so much confusion surrounding this terminology.

Which Type of School Is Best for You?

So, are colleges and universities the same? The answer is a resounding no — but that’s a good thing. The differences between colleges and universities allow a greater number of students to obtain an education in a way that works for their lives.

The type of school you should attend depends on your career aspirations, college savings, educational goals, and preferred college experience. Each institution has its pros and cons, so you’ll need to determine what’s most important to you. 

If you’re after an affordable degree and a close relationship with faculty, you’ll probably be better off pursuing an education through a college. But if you don’t want to spend time and money on general education courses and would rather get practical, hands-on training in your career field, a technical school would be a better fit. Students seeking the traditional university experience in a diverse environment who have the means to pay higher tuition, books, and housing will feel more at home at a university. 

In the end, it may be good to apply to a variety of different institution types in case things don’t work out with your top choices. 

Other Things to Consider When Looking for a College 

Now that you understand the difference between college and university, remember that the institution type isn’t the only thing that matters. You’ll need to weigh many factors, including a school’s career opportunities, student life, academic quality, financial aid awards, and much more. Refer to our blog on How to Choose a College for more information on this subject.

Choosing a post-secondary educational institution can be overwhelming in the United States with all the different colleges and universities out there, but knowing the distinction between universities and various types of colleges can help you narrow your choices.

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