College vs. university: What’s the difference?

Both colleges and universities are higher education institutions. But it can be confusing because the terms are often used interchangeably.

So here’s a closer look at some of the similarities and differences.

Key takeaways

  • “College” and “university” are often used interchangeably for institutions of higher education, but there are some differences. 
  • Universities must offer graduate programs, whereas colleges typically offer undergraduate degrees only.
  • A school must also meet certain requirements for at least five years to be granted the university designation.
  • Colleges and universities can be public or private institutions. 
  • Some universities have colleges within them.

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What is a university?

To receive a university designation, a school must also meet certain requirements, often for at least five years:

  • Separate graduate and undergraduate programs, and with staff whose main responsibility is administering those programs
  • Graduate programs that must lead to advanced degrees in at least three academic fields
  • Accreditation by an independent agency 

The size of a school is no indication of whether it’s a university. Enrollments can vary widely. Consider Delaware State University, which has around 4,500 students, and Arizona State University, which is home to almost 65,000 students.

What is a college?

To be considered a college, a school must grant degrees, like a bachelor’s or associate degree. This is why schools that provide technical training or job-specific certifications might not be considered colleges.

Colleges typically only offer undergraduate programs, but there are exceptions. And there are many types. Here are a few:

Colleges with university structures

Some large universities have smaller colleges within them. The University of Arizona is one example. It has 20 colleges and schools dedicated to different fields of study, including engineering, agriculture, fine arts, education, law, sciences and humanities.

Community college

Community colleges, sometimes called junior colleges, are generally publicly funded institutions that offer two-year degrees and opportunities to save money while earning a higher education. And credits earned at a two-year college may transfer to a university. In addition to being less expensive, community colleges often have smaller class sizes too. 

Liberal arts college

According to Coursera, liberal arts colleges take “a broader approach to education by focusing on the arts, sciences, humanities and social sciences.” The goal is for students to develop an appreciation for multiple subjects and practice critical thinking skills. This also helps broaden their educational horizons by preparing students for a multitude of possible careers instead of having them specialize in just one.

Liberal arts colleges tend to be on the smaller side and typically have enrollments of fewer than 5,000 students.  

Technical college 

Technical colleges—which are not the same as technical schools—typically offer programs geared toward training in specific careers and focus less on general education. They may offer two-year associate degrees and one-year certificates. And some technical colleges offer bachelor’s degrees too. 

Credits earned from a technical college may be transferable to other colleges or universities.

Confusing school names

There are also some universities with the word “college” in their name, which can create confusion. This can happen for several reasons. For example, a university may have been a college when it was first founded and opted to keep its original name. Virginia’s College of William and Mary is an example.

In other cases, a university might keep the word “college” in its name to avoid confusion with another school. For example, Boston College is technically a university but opted to keep “college” in its name since there was already a Boston University.

Harvard University is home to Harvard College, an undergraduate liberal arts program.

Colleges vs. universities: Degree options

Another difference between these types of higher education is what degrees are offered. Universities don’t usually offer associate degrees, and community colleges and technical schools don’t typically offer bachelor’s degrees.

Associate degrees

Associate degrees usually take a minimum of 60 college credit hours, or about two years of full-time study. 

An associate degree is often more vocational in nature than a bachelor’s. But the credit hours can usually be applied toward a four-year bachelor’s degree at a college or university. 

And there are several types of associate degrees: 

  • Associate of Arts (AA)
  • Associate of Science (AS)
  • Associate of Applied Science (AAS)
  • Associate of Applied Arts (AAA)
  • Associate of Engineering (AES)

Bachelor’s degrees

To compare, students can typically earn a Bachelor of Arts (BA) or Bachelor of Science (BS) degree with 120 credits, which usually takes about four years of full-time study. A BA often covers a wider range of general education subjects, while a BS may have a higher emphasis on technical topics. 

Graduate degrees

Graduate programs typically come after a person has earned a bachelor’s degree. Graduate degrees, such as master’s or doctorate degrees, typically involve a narrower focus. You might be familiar with examples like a Master of Business Administration (MBA), Master of Arts (MA) or doctorate (PhD).

Remember, while colleges usually only offer undergraduate programs, universities are required to offer graduate programs that lead to advanced degrees in at least three academic disciplines.

Are colleges cheaper than universities?

College and university tuition varies widely. Still, you’ll likely find the lowest in-state tuition and fees at a public two-year institution. 

During the 2020–2021 academic year, public institutions had the lowest cost, followed by private for-profit and private nonprofit institutions, respectively. The types of institutions ranked the same for students seeking four-year and two-year degrees. 

Earning a bachelor’s degree at a private university ranks as the most expensive option, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. But financial aid may be available at every type of school, whether through government programs or the institutions themselves.

Colleges vs. universities in a nutshell

People often refer to “college” and “university” interchangeably. As for the types of programs offered, universities offer both undergraduate and graduate programs, while colleges typically focus only on undergraduate studies. 

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