College vs. University: What’s the Difference?

In past decades, you could get a job and make a decent living with only a high school diploma. Today, it’s getting harder to find good jobs without further education, and that’d led to an increased number of students pursuing degrees or credentials after high school.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 49% of young adults between the ages of 25 and 29 earned an associate degree or higher in 2022, an increase from 41% in 2011.

If you’re one of the millions of students considering your postsecondary education options, deciding whether to go to college or a university is a major choice. But what is the difference between a college and a university? Although these terms are often used interchangeably, universities are very different from colleges; in general, universities tend to be larger and offer more degree programs.

Continue reading this breakdown of colleges vs. universities to decide which is the better option for you.

What is a College?

A college is a postsecondary institution that primarily offers undergraduate degrees, such as certificate programs or associate or bachelor’s degrees. Colleges can be standalone institutions or be a part of a larger institution, but they tend to have smaller class sizes and a lower student population than universities.

A school with “college” in its name may have a smaller number of programs available, or may focus on certain specialties.

There are many different types of colleges. Some of the most common include:

  • Community colleges: Community colleges are two-year schools that offer certificate programs and associate degree programs. Less expensive than four-year schools, community colleges provide career-specific programs, but they can also be used to work toward a bachelor’s degree. You can earn an associate degree, then transfer to a four-year school to complete your bachelor’s degree.
  • Liberal arts colleges: Liberal arts colleges have a broader approach to education, aiming to provide students with a well-rounded, broad understanding of general subjects. These colleges tend to focus on the humanities, art, literature, history and languages. Liberal arts colleges tend to have smaller class sizes, and are often private schools.
  • Vocational or technical schools: Vocational schools, also known as technical or trade schools, provide specialized career-training programs. These programs tend to be shorter in duration, such as six months to one year in length, and prepare students for careers in fields like culinary arts, dental hygiene or mechanics.
  • Specialized colleges: These schools cater to certain student populations, such as students belonging to certain religious groups. Examples include Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU), religious colleges and single-sex schools.

What is a University?

Like colleges, universities are degree-granting institutions. But though colleges tend to only offer undergraduate degrees — and perhaps a handful of graduate degrees — universities have programs at the graduate, doctorate and professional levels.

Universities can be private or public, but they tend to be larger than colleges. They typically have both larger class sizes and more degree and research opportunities.

However, universities often have smaller divisions that break up the schools, and these divisions are referred to as colleges. For example, a university may have a college of education or college of engineering.

Should you go to a College or University?

Including both two- and four-year institutions, there are over 5,900 colleges and universities in the U.S. When weighing the decision of colleges vs. universities, ask yourself the following questions:

  • How large of a school do you want? Think about the size of school you’d be comfortable with and what you can handle. If you’re coming from a small high school, you may be more comfortable with a smaller campus and class size, so a college may be a better choice. But if you’re looking to meet a wide range of people or want a different experience, a university may have more appeal for you.
  • Do you have a major in mind? If you know what you want to major in, you can narrow down your prospective list of schools to colleges or universities with reputations for excellence in that field. But if you’re undecided, a liberal arts college that gives you a foundation of different subjects may help you identify your strengths and interests.
  • Is class size important to you? At some large universities, the classes can be intimidating; they can take place in large lecture halls or theaters, and your professor may teach hundreds of students at once. It can be difficult to get personalized attention in that environment, so if a smaller class size is important to you, a college may be preferable.

Although the differences between colleges and universities can seem significant, the distinction may not be as important as other factors, such as location, academic rigor and financial aid opportunities. Choosing a range of schools to tour and research can help you gauge whether the college or university is a match for your goals.


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