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College vs. University: What’s the Difference?

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What’s Covered:


We say that we apply to college and go to college. We refer to college life, college courses, and college activities. Despite the fact that there’s a difference between colleges and universities, we think of the word “college” as an all-encompassing term.


So, what exactly is the difference between a college and a university? And which one is the right fit for you?


What Exactly Are Colleges and Universities?


Colleges and universities are both institutions of higher learning. While they may offer many of the same majors and disciplines and similar courses, there are some notable differences. For example, universities are typically considerably larger than colleges. While colleges emphasize undergraduate education (although they often have some graduate programs), universities typically focus on research and graduate education, too.


A university might be made up of colleges within it. For example, Cornell University has seven colleges or schools, each focusing on a broad area like engineering or arts and sciences, that individually accept undergraduate students. Another example is Barnard College, which is an all-women’s school that’s part of Columbia University. While Barnard is a distinct college in its own right, students may take courses at Columbia and are considered part of the larger university’s community.


It’s important to note that the term “college” can also apply to a liberal arts school or a community college. Community colleges offer two-year degrees, and some students transfer to four-year colleges or universities. Liberal arts colleges (LACs) offer four-year degrees and sometimes graduate degrees. Universities also offer four-year degrees, master’s degrees, and doctorates (typically).


Some institutions that have college in their name are actually universities and vice versa. For example, Dartmouth College and the College of William & Mary are both more akin to universities, while Colgate University is considered a liberal arts college. The terminology often derives from an institution’s desire to honor its history or to demonstrate an emphasis on undergraduate education.


Differences Between Colleges and Universities


Many students will find both colleges and universities appealing. But when you’re deciding which one is better for you, consider:


1. Program availability


Colleges tend to have fewer pre-professional courses and majors like nursing and teaching. They also usually have fewer programs in general, although you’re likely to find most of the common ones at both. Some colleges may even have programs that many of their university counterparts don’t. Ultimately, it’s important to see what individual institutions offer before you commit to attending any one.


On a similar note, colleges also tend to have fewer combined-degee programs.These programs allow you to earn a bachelor’s and graduate degree in a shorter span of time or gain immediate acceptance into a graduate program early on.


One example is the BS/MD combined path, in which students gain admission into medical school when they’re accepted into a bachelor’s program or early on as an undergraduate. Because colleges typically have few graduate programs, you’re more likely to find these paths at universities.


That said, some liberal arts colleges will partner with universities to offer more specialized degrees, such as engineering (or may even offer the degree itself, like Swarthmore). Dartmouth College (technically a university) has a partnership with several liberal arts colleges to offer a dual-degree program in engineering. Students at colleges like Amherst, Williams, and Pomona are eligible for this opportunity.


2. Size


If you find the idea of a large student body intimidating, a college could be more your cup of tea. Colleges tend to be considerably smaller than universities. For example, Williams College’s undergraduate student body is less than half the size of Princeton University’s undergraduate student body (2,078 vs. 5,422 students). State schools are even larger, often with undergraduate enrollments of 20,000 or more.

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3. Emphasis on teaching vs. research


Looking for research opportunities? You’re more likely to find them at a university than a college. Meanwhile, if you want professors who are focused on teaching, a college is probably a better bet.


Universities may have TAs lead intro-level courses, while professors tend to teach all classes at colleges, especially liberal arts colleges. 


4. Specialization and general education requirements


Colleges tend to be a bit more flexible in terms of what you study, emphasizing a broader liberal-arts curriculum. Universities, on the other hand, tend to be specialized, often asking their students to declare their major earlier (end of freshman year or beginning of sophomore year), while colleges typically allow students to wait until the end of their sophomore year to declare. 


You’re also more likely to find an open curriculum at liberal arts colleges, although there are some universities, like Brown, that offer this flexibility, too. An open curriculum allows students to take whatever courses they like, as long as they fulfill their major requirements. There are no general education or distribution requirements.


5. Ease of building relationships


It can be easy to feel lost at a larger university, and being in huge classes can make it tough to develop relationships with professors. At smaller colleges, you may be able to find your footing more easily. Professors also tend to be more accessible, and may even be invested in your personal growth. This can be a big perk for students interested in grad school, as letters of recommendation are important.


On the flip side, having a larger student body means that you’re likely to find many like-minded people. You just may have to be more proactive in looking for your community.


Is a College or University Right for You?


College vs. university is just one factor to consider when searching for the best schools for you. You should also think about location, top programs, acceptance rate, and more. The truth is that you may find everything you need at both colleges and universities.


We recommend using our free school search tool and chancing engine to filter for your best-fit schools. You can indicate your preferences for factors like location, majors, size, and more. We’ll also let you know your chances of acceptance, and how to improve your profile for your dream school.


Short Bio
Laura Berlinsky-Schine is a freelance writer and editor based in Brooklyn with her demigod/lab mix Hercules. She specializes in education, technology and career development. She also writes satire and humor, which has appeared in Slackjaw, Points in Case, Little Old Lady Comedy, Jane Austen’s Wastebasket, and Funny-ish. View her work and get in touch at: www.lauraberlinskyschine.com.