What Is the Difference Between a College and a University?

Higher education is interchangeably used with college or university enrollment, which confuses many students (Lee, 2017). Although it is an umbrella term pertaining to postsecondary education, it blurs the line between colleges and universities. And these institutions have specific differences. As such, many learners ask what distinguishes one from the other.

It is with the view of making a clear distinction between the two that this article is undertaken: to allow would-be higher education seekers to clearly differentiate between the two. In the end, they should be able to determine which choice is best for their situation or needs.

Difference Between College and University Table of Contents

  1. Higher Education at a Glance
  2. What Are Universities?
  3. What Are Colleges?
  4. Other Types of Institutions of Higher Learning
  5. Pros and Cons

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1. Higher Education at a Glance

Choosing which school to attend after high school is often one of the first big decisions a student can make, along with picking a program upon distinguishing degrees from majors. Due to higher education having a big influence on their career path, attending postsecondary education can often become overwhelming that most students do not even complete their chosen programs. Data published in 2018 from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES. 2018) shows that in the period 1996 to 2010, less than half of all students who enter college do not graduate. In fact, the number of students who are able to graduate is much lower nowadays compared to those during the 1970s (Bound et al., 2010). It is even worse for those in poverty, where only about 1 in 10 complete their postsecondary education (St-Esprit, 2019).

Several factors influence this phenomenon. On the one hand, the near-prohibitive cost of college is an obvious reason why some students are instead looking for more affordable alternatives or taking a two-year course instead of a full bachelor’s degree. To put this into perspective, even a public university with some measure of state funding can set students back by almost $20,000 for a four-year program (NCES, 2018). Two other major factors include job and career prospects after graduation, which are great incentives for students to find a skill that can be monetized quickly in order to justify the cost of higher education.

Useful Enrollment Statistics

While the rate of enrollment is certainly up year after year and the rate of graduation has improved since a decade ago, only 6 out of 10 students graduate after six years. These years represent a more realistic view of time and money for students (Peller, 2019), in contrast to a nominal four-year program.

The reason for this is simple. Postsecondary educational institutions have failed to adapt to the changing needs of students (Voight, 2019), where the student body is more diverse (both ethnically and financially).

Here are interesting facts and their outcomes taken from NCES on data concerning the diversity of college students in the U.S.:

  • 61% (about 8,637,000) of male students versus 72% (11,291,000) of female students enrolled in college immediately after completing high school (NCES, 2017).
  • As for ethnicity, Asians had the most enrollees, with 87% of them entering college right after high school graduation (NCES, 2017).
  • They're followed by non-Hispanic whites (69%), Hispanic (67%), and African-American (58%) (NCES, 2017).
  • 10% of students in public postsecondary educational institutions (country average) were over 25 years old (NCES, 2017).
  • The country average for private, not-for-profit colleges on the same demographic is 13% (NCES, 2017).
  • For for-profit colleges, 39% are over the age of 25 (NCES, 2017).

Source: NCES, 2017

Private Vs. Public

The last four years have seen 20 nonprofit private colleges shut down because of the costs involved in running higher education institutions (Jaschik, 2019). This, however, is a far cry from the prediction that half of all postsecondary institutions in the United States will close in the next decade (Christensen, 2017).

At the moment, there are still over a thousand nonprofit and for-profit private schools in the country. With this plethora of choices, the only thing holding students back is the cost difference between public and private universities. For those trying to cut costs, however, the choice is clear: public universities, which receive some state funding (among others), are more affordable. The published annual costs of a four-year program at a public university, for example, is about $10,230 in the academic year of 2018-2019 (Hess, 2019a). This amount is significantly lower than the average annual tuition at private four-year institutions, which amounted to $35,380 for the same period (Hess, 2019b). Moreover, the number of public schools in the US outnumbers private ones, thus learners have more options.

While state funding has somewhat declined in the last few years, donations and other endowments have stepped up proportionally to help defray costs. They also offer lower tuition fees for students who live in the state where the public university is in. The reason is that in-state students indirectly support public universities by paying their state taxes (Kantrowitz, 2020).

Apart from choosing from a public or a private institution, students also have a choice whether to look for a college or a university (or even other types), which we will be discussing below.

2. What Are Universities?

When students speak of college, most people think of universities. Universities are primary degree-granting institutions in a higher education system and normally the largest in that system. They offer every undergraduate degree that a college can, but also offer graduate programs, operate other specialized departments like a medical or law school, and generate scientific and social research. In general, the larger size of a university allows it to offer a more diverse academic profile than other types.

While there are a few slight differences among U.S. states in terms of the elements that make a university, in general, they should follow four criteria (TESU, 2016):

  • Graduate studies. A university should have a separate organization and faculty for graduate programs in at least three different professional fields.
  • Undergraduate studies. Like any college, a university should also offer a separate undergraduate study system in a wide range of academic subjects.
  • Resources. A university should be able to support its programs, whether undergraduate or graduate, and run the facilities and equipment they need.
  • Accreditation. It should be licensed, registered, and in some cases incorporated within the state.

Some educators also use the term "national college" or "national university" to refer to institutions of this type. This is a reference to the prestige of a university, as graduates of this school can be recognized anywhere in the country—even the world.


Universities invariably offer the widest range of academic programs, often breaking these fields into several “colleges” or “faculties” in their campus or in their system (such as a liberal arts colleges for humanities or a discrete STEM school—a notable example is Harvard University). While there are some exceptions, universities also have a greater focus on research than their smaller counterparts, which do not have the funding, staff, or advanced education to further one. All universities also offer advanced programs up to the doctoral level.


In general, the biggest higher education institutions in the United States are universities, but this does not necessarily mean the physical size. An example is Marymount California University, which had less than 1,000 students as of 2016 data (Ross, 2018).

The most famous of U.S. universities (and the most expensive), however, are probably the so-called "Ivy League" schools. Ivy League schools constitute the highest class among American universities, a stature that entails inherent social, political, and economic benefits for its alumni (Miller et al., 2015). These are eight universities that are generally accepted as among the most prestigious of their kind, some with a history going back as far as the 17th century. Their moniker came from the athletic collegiate conference that grouped them together in 1954, though the name is now used for far more than just sports (Celletti, 2018).

Source: Yale University

That said, other universities outrank Ivy League schools in certain rankings. For example, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Stanford University both outrank the top Ivy League, Yale University, in terms of SAT ranges (Niche.com, 2020).

Cost Analysis

There is no doubt that top-tier U.S. universities are pricey, but this does not always mean that all universities should be just as expensive. In the upper range, the most expensive is—as you can guess—an Ivy League school, Columbia University, which costs an average of $61,850 for a four-year program (Kerr, 2019). At the other end of the spectrum, however, is the University of Washington, which has a sticker price of $9,765 for the same (Best Value Schools, 2020).

3. What Are Colleges?

On the other hand, a college is a smaller institution. Therefore, colleges are more inclined to offer associate's degrees (2-year programs) and bachelor's degrees (4-year degrees) because of resource constraints, especially funding and staffing. Colleges are an umbrella term for many types of postsecondary learning institutions, including community colleges and junior colleges, which are concerned with offering associate's degrees.

Many community and junior colleges now also offer full bachelor's degrees, however. In fact, community colleges have awarded about over 23,000 such degrees in 2017 (Andre, 2020).

Source: American Association of Community Colleges, 2017

In terms of prestige, colleges have nowhere near the level of clout as a university. This is why they are also called regional colleges to distinguish them from national universities. It also refers to the colleges incentivizing local enrollment, as opposed to universities that can draw students from all over the country.


Colleges, as mentioned, offer bachelor’s degrees, which take three to four years to complete. In the United States, bachelor’s degrees typically involve four years of study. Associate’s degrees, on the other hand, take only two years. This makes them more attractive to people who want to gain immediate employment after college, as colleges often confer Associate of Applied Science degrees upon completion. These are programs designed around fields like hospitality, electrical, accounting, and others. But there are also bachelor's degree for these, like in hospitality. There are even hospitality management degree online offerings.

Otherwise, for those who want to continue their associate's degrees to a bachelor's after two to three years of additional schooling, the college confers an Associate of Arts or Associate of Science degree for fields like math, science, or psychology.

Rarely, some colleges offer more advanced degrees, blurring the line between a college and a university. These include distinguished colleges like St. Joseph's College in New York, which offers graduate studies in business and education. Most of these can already be considered a university (see above criteria) but rather choose to remain a college in name due to tradition or to avoid confusion.


There is no shortage of great undergraduate and regional colleges in the U.S. One such is Santa Monica College in California. SMC sends more students to four-year universities in California than any other college in the state (Peabody, 2001), and boasts of esteemed alumni, such as James Dean and Dustin Hoffman. Another is Houston Community College, which was restructured as a multi-college system in 1992 to accommodate a diverse academic program.

Cost Analysis

Research from College Board (2020) shows that four-year studies in public colleges average at $10,440 per year, while two-year community colleges are at $3,730 annually, for in-state students. This covers only tuition, without room and board, however. All in all, this represents around a 3% jump from the sticker prices last academic year.

4. Other Types of Institutions of Higher Learning

Apart from a university and a college, there are several subtypes of postsecondary education institutions. Some experts, however, often classify the following two as a type of college, but as there are more than a few of them they would likely need their own section.

To wit, there are two major types of institutions that are better categorized on their own: polytechnic institutions and trade schools.


Also called institutes of technology or polytechnic university/college, polytechnic schools are institutions that are geared toward STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields. These schools offer a wide variety of studies in these fields, from associate's (2 years), bachelor's (4 years), master's (2 years), and doctor's (6 years).

Note that many universities also offer STEM studies—for example, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. While it is known for STEM, MIT is also a private university with a broad range of disciplines and research.

In many European countries, there are distinctions between polytechnic schools and institutes of technology. For example, in Ireland, an institute of technology is a regional or a technical college, instead of an institution equivalent to a university in the United States (K12 Academics, 2020).

Trade Schools

These institutions go by a bevy of names, but they are mostly referred to as technical schools, vocational schools, or career colleges. These are centers of learning that offer job-oriented training so graduates can immediately apply a trade skill to a particular occupation. These fields include information technology, business and management, and HVAC repair. A cosmetology major is also one of the most popular options.

Trade schools often award certificates and/or diplomas that take less time than a traditional university education. For example, some programs award a certificate that takes anywhere from a few months of study to a year, while diplomas are similar to an associate's degree. Some institutions, however, offer programs that are equivalent to bachelor's and master's degrees, depending on the field of study.

Students who want to train for direct entry into a workforce without the time commitment for a university or a four-year program can opt to enroll in a trade school. These schools fast-track students into certain careers without course requirements. They are also generally more affordable, given the short span of time it takes to obtain a certificate or a diploma. And with the increasing cost of college, people have turned to trade schools to further or diversify their skill sets.

Source: Statista Market Forecast, 2017

5. Pros and Cons

When choosing between a college and a university, the decision should not be based on the length of the program or the cost alone. Here are other important details any student should look into before committing to either.


Universities are generally larger (not just physically) than colleges and offer a wider range of courses. Campuses also abound with more student service facilities. The sheer size of a university can intimidate some students, though, but this can be balanced with the variety of options open to them, from clubs, activities, performances, sports, and more. Networking for a career path, later on, is also encouraged in universities. The downside is the impersonal approach of these schools, as their bigger size often means fewer professors per student, leading to cramped lecture halls and detached, impersonal teachers.

On the other hand, as colleges are smaller, they are usually cozier, with students and faculty alike knowing each other. Furthermore, colleges are specifically meant to accommodate in-state or in-district students, which can mean less outlay for room and board. The disadvantage, however, is that students are often in want of academic and extracurricular activities and limited programs and majors.

Breadth of academic programs

The biggest difference is that universities offer more advanced degrees; colleges offer mostly associate's, some bachelor's, and rarely an advanced degree.

To be more specific, the broad selection of disciplines in a university means students will have no shortage of options when pursuing an academic passion. Universities typically break down their classes into several schools or colleges, and while colleges do this also, the latter tends to do it on a smaller scale.

Universities also offer accelerated or automatic admission to postgraduate programs in various fields, such as the medical or legal sectors.

An upside to a university is that students can also intern or be instructed by PhD students, not just teachers, for a broader, more complete instructional experience. In addition, because universities tend to attract research (more on this below) grants, these institutions invariably employ the top talent in their fields, leading to a generally better quality of education.

Financial aid

Colleges and universities alike offer scholarships and financial aid, but the financial assistance available to students varies wildly. In general, public schools have more funding ready for deserving students, while private institutions rely on other sources, such as subsidies and donations from foundations and elsewhere.

In addition, public colleges and universities also offer a much lower rate for students in the same geographical region (normally the same state, even the same district for smaller colleges). For private universities, though, the tuition is generally the same for everybody else, whether the student is from the same state or country or otherwise. There are also financial aid programs that cover both public and private institutions; for instance, Title IV schools.

When choosing between any college or university, it is always a wise idea to check whether the scholarship, grant, or financial aid can apply to that particular school.


Colleges do not typically run research; they are more concerned with undergraduate education. There is certainly some research done in college, but these are smaller in scale and rarer to find, simply because a professor's job in a college is to teach, not to generate research.

On the other hand, universities thrive on research first and foremost, as the employment of professors in these institutions is predicated on their generation of research and the inclusion of graduate and undergraduate students in the process. Universities use this research to attract funding, whether state or federal. This gives universities much more clout and resources to support more research and student projects, leading to more funding, and so on.

Source: NCES, 2017

The Bottom Line

There is a world of differences between a college and a university, and the points above are simply more ostensible. Cultural fit is one of the more important as well, though this factor can be hard to quantify.

It behooves the student to perform due diligence when choosing a school. Though it can be tempting to condense the choice of a school to mere cost analysis, the factors stated above are all crucial elements and may even be more important in the long term. Conversely, choosing a postsecondary institution based on prestige alone is just as foolhardy, as the best university in the world will avail the students nothing if it is a bad fit for them.



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