This Is the Difference Between a College and a University

Should the distinction have a big impact on your choice of school?

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When you hear someone say they’re “going to college,” you know, generally, what it means: That they’re going to an institution of higher learning. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re going to college. They could very well be going to a university—so what is the difference between college and university, anyway?

What is a university?

Of the two terms, “university” is older; according to dictionary.com, its usage dates back all the way to the 13th century. “University” primarily refers to an institution that offers both undergraduate programs and graduate or professional ones. While, for the most part, no strict guidelines dictate any requirements for a school to call itself a university, some U.S. states do have such guidelines. In New Jersey, for instance, a university must offer graduate degrees in at least three fields. We doubt either a college or university would take these hilariously awful college admissions essays.

What is a college?

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The term “college” most often refers to a school that puts more emphasis on its undergraduate programs, like associate’s and bachelor’s degrees, than its graduate programs, and may not have graduate programs at all. However, colleges certainly can have graduate programs, and many do. “College” can also refer to individual schools within a larger institution. For instance, the University of Michigan has a College of Engineering, among others. Still, other universities refer to their undergraduate programs as colleges; Harvard University has a Harvard College.

How are colleges and universities the same?

The most obvious similarity is the fact that we use the word “college” to mean both of them (you probably won’t hear someone say they’re “going to university,” at least in the United States). But there are other ways the two are similar. They can also be both public and private, and one is not necessarily more difficult to get into or more academically challenging than the other. These things depend more on the individual school. Therefore, whether a school is a “college” or a “university” shouldn’t play a big role in choosing a school. But they’re not completely interchangeable, just like these other words you think are synonyms but actually aren’t.

What’s the difference between college and university?

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When it comes down to it, there’s really no end-all, be-all difference between college and university; it’s just more of a general trend of things that are usually truer for one than the other. As a whole, universities tend to have larger student bodies, while colleges may be smaller, with lower student-to-faculty ratios—but there are numerous exceptions. A university is more likely to offer extensive graduate programs, but many colleges do so too. Another difference between college and university is that, over time, the word “university” has developed a slightly more prestigious connotation than “college.” This is the most likely reason some schools with “college” in their name have changed, or are considering changing, it to “university.”

So why do some schools that technically qualify as universities call themselves colleges? Well, for many schools like Dartmouth College, it’s simply a matter of tradition. They may have started as colleges, and even though they’ve expanded their graduate programs enough to qualify as universities, they would prefer to keep the name they were founded under.

So why do we call them both “college”?

Why do even students at universities say that they’re “going to college”? Well, there’s no concrete, documented answer, but a popular theory suggests that it has to do with the fact that the word “college” has a stronger association with undergraduate studies. When students move on from high school to higher education, they’re starting at the undergraduate level. Since “college” has that history of association with undergraduate studies, “college” reportedly became the overarching term. In addition, many universities also have “colleges” within them for different areas of undergraduate study, and many students at universities will still be earning their undergraduate degrees from one of those. Read on to learn the explanations behind more little things you’ve always wondered about.

[Sources: Best Value Schools, USA Today, Grammarist]

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Meghan Jones
Meghan Jones is a Staff Writer for RD.com who has been writing since before she could write. She graduated from Marist College with a Bachelor of Arts in English and has been writing for Reader's Digest since 2017. In spring 2017, her creative nonfiction piece "Anticipation" was published in Angles literary magazine. She is a proud Hufflepuff and member of Team Cap.