What Is the Difference Between a College and a University?


Feb 13, 2023

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Prospective college students applying to schools might wonder if they’ll receive a better education at a college or university. However, academic quality isn’t really a factor in labeling a higher education institution either way.

In fact, students who bear the mindset that colleges provide a lesser-than curriculum over a university could potentially miss a chance to attend a best-fit school with a high standard of academic excellence.

So, what is the difference between a college and a university, and how do you decide which is most suitable for helping you achieve your academic and professional goals? This guide will break down the differences for you. 

College vs. University: What’s the Difference?

There are only a few distinctions between a college and a university. Both types of institutions are considered public or private and offer undergraduate degrees — however, universities earn their title after meeting specific criteria, such as:

  • Offering graduate degree programs separate from their undergraduate programs
  • Graduate programs that deliver advanced degrees in at least three academic disciplines
  • The school maintains appropriate accreditation

Colleges don’t have graduate degree programs but boast many other qualifications that earn them prestige. According to CollegeBoard, the different types of colleges include:

  • Two or four-year institutions
  • Private or public schools 
  • Community colleges
  • Liberal arts schools
  • For-profit colleges 
  • Historically Black colleges (HBCs)
  • Hispanic-serving colleges where 25% of the student population classifies as Hispanic
  • Religiously affiliated colleges
  • Vocational/trade schools
  • Single-sex institutions instead of the typical coed schools

While universities might also be religiously affiliated, single-sex, or historically Black or Hispanic-serving, their advanced degrees will always set them apart. 

Should I Attend a College or University?

Attending a college or a university depends on affordability and whether your intended degree requires advanced education.

A CareerBuilder survey revealed that 33% of employers want applicants with degrees higher than a bachelor’s. For instance, students must obtain a doctorate in medicine, law, and some business management fields. Therefore, beginning your studies at a university may make it easier to transfer directly into your school’s advanced programs. 

However, colleges have their place, as well. Suppose a student doesn’t know what major to pursue, or maybe they want to save money on student loans. Starting your college career at a community college or vocational-technical school might be better. 

Community colleges offer universal general education requirements in math, reading, writing, and science as any four-year college or university. However, students can earn a two-year associate degree — usually transferable to a four-year program at a college or university — for a fraction of the cost. Most community colleges also deliver professional development courses that result in a certificate. 

Some students might feel that a traditional college degree isn’t worth the expense. Instead, they might enroll in a trade school where they can participate in apprenticeships and on-the-job training, graduating in or under two years. 

Trade and vocational-technical education are often far less expensive than a college degree. Students currently pay an average of $35,551 annually to attend college in the United States. 

Know the Difference Between a College and a University for Your Best Shot at Success

Knowing the difference between a college and a university can open doors to schools you might not have otherwise considered attending. Colleges are just as academically dignified as universities — and if you don’t intend to pursue a master’s degree or are interested in enrolling someplace else, a college could have everything you need to set you up for success.

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