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What Is the Difference Between College and University?

By Zach Skillings

Zach Skillings is the Scholarships360 Newsletter Editor. He specializes in college admissions and strives to answer important questions about higher education. When he’s not contributing to Scholarships360, Zach writes about travel, music, film, and culture. His work has been published in Our State Magazine, Ladygunn Magazine, The Nocturnal Times, and The Lexington Dispatch. Zach graduated from Elon University with a degree in Cinema and Television Arts.

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Updated: March 23rd, 2022
What Is the Difference Between College and University?

The terms “college” and “university” are often used interchangeably in the United States. This can be confusing for students trying to figure out the difference between the two. Although they’re both institutions of higher education, the difference between college and university is important for students to know. In this guide, we break down the key differences to be aware of. 

College vs. university: What’s the difference?

Now that you have a basic understanding of the different types of colleges and universities, let’s dive into the main differences between college and university. Keep in mind that there are exceptions depending on the specific type of institution, but the characteristics discussed in this list apply to the majority of colleges and universities. 

Degree offerings

Colleges typically offer students one type of degree level. For instance, community colleges generally offer associate degrees while four-year colleges offer bachelor’s degrees. Although there are some exceptions, colleges typically do not offer graduate programs.

Meanwhile, universities offer a variety of degrees including bachelor’s, master’s, and even PhDs. Additionally, universities oftentimes have associated professional schools for law, medicine, and business. 

Size

Because colleges are focused on providing one type of degree program, they often have smaller class sizes and campuses. Classes usually consist of no more than 30 students, allowing for more personalized instruction from professors. College campuses also tend to be smaller and more intimate, making for a more closely-knit community. 

Since universities are larger institutions that offer both undergraduate and graduate degrees, class sizes tend to be on the larger side. However, class size depends greatly on whether the university is public or private. While private universities feature smaller class sizes ranging from 20 – 30 students, lecture halls at public universities can seat hundreds of students. Additionally, universities typically have sizable campuses featuring bustling communities and lively cultures.

Program Offerings

Colleges typically feature fewer program offerings than universities. Many colleges, especially community colleges and technical colleges, include programs for one specific discipline such as engineering, graphic design, or nursing. However, liberal arts colleges take a broad approach to education by emphasizing the importance of studying a variety of academic subjects.

Universities typically feature a wide variety of program offerings, meaning that students have the opportunity to pick the courses that best align with their interests and desired career path. In fact, universities oftentimes feature smaller colleges that offer different programs of study. For instance, Texas A&M University is divided into nearly 20 colleges featuring programs such as agriculture, architecture, business, dentistry, and engineering.

Research Focus

Although some colleges have robust research programs, the majority of colleges place more emphasis on undergraduate teaching than research efforts. This means that students take classes led by professors who view teaching as their top priority, rather than research.

Universities are generally more devoted to research and oftentimes  feature an impressive array of labs and facilities to support research efforts. Sometimes, undergraduate teaching may take a backseat to faculty and graduate student research. Although professors may not view teaching as their top priority, students do get the benefit of taking classes led by some of the most highly qualified faculty in their respective academic fields. 

Cost

Because there are different types of colleges, the cost of attending college can vary widely. For instance, community college tuition can be as little as $3,500 a year according to the National Society of High School Scholars. Meanwhile, the average annual price of tuition and fees for the 2020-2021 academic year at private colleges is $37,650 according to College Data

The total cost of attending a four-year university can be quite steep when you consider the price of tuition, fees, room, board, and textbooks. In fact, a report by The Simple Dollar indicates that the average total cost of obtaining a bachelor’s degree from a four-year university in the United States is $127,000. Similar to colleges, however, the cost of attending universities can vary greatly depending on whether the intuition is public or private. Public universities are much less expensive than private universities. 

Paying for college or university 

Whether you decide on a college or a university, there will most likely be a financial cost. The most important thing to do is fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) by the due date for your state.  Take the time to familiarize yourself with need-based grants, student loans, and Income Share Agreements (ISAs). An entire section of the Scholarships360 website is devoted to financial aid, so make use of it!

Finally, before you find out the bottom line, make sure that you are applying for all the scholarships that you qualify for!

See also: How to pay for college (A step-by-step guide)

Pros and Cons of Colleges

Pros

  • More personalized attention from professors, who are more devoted to undergraduate teaching and less focused on research
  • Specialized course offerings, which is ideal for students with very specific interests
  • Close-knit communities that result from small campus sizes
  • In the case of community colleges, tuition costs are much more affordable than four-year universities 

Cons

  • Do not feature the wide variety of course offerings available at universities 
  • Do not offer programs for advanced degrees such as master’s degrees and PhDs
  • Faculty are less likely to leading researchers in their respective fields
  • Fewer resources and facilities for students interested in conducting research
  • Lack of campus culture at community colleges and technical colleges

Pros and Cons of Universities 

Pros

  • Access to advanced degree programs such as master’s degrees and PhDs
  • More program and course offerings, which is ideal for students who are initially unsure about what to study 
  • Lively campus cultures and diverse communities of students and faculty
  • More likely that professors are highly reputable figures in their respective fields of research
  • Lots of resources available for students interested in performing research

Cons

  • Research is usually prioritized over undergraduate teaching, so students might receive less personalized attention from professors 
  • Cost of attending universities is generally much higher than colleges, especially community college
  • Although some students may enjoy large, bustling communities, others may feel lost or isolated 
  • Large public universities sometimes face limitations in faculty and classroom availability, which can make it difficult for students to register for courses before they fill up

Is college or university right for me?

Hopefully  you have a better idea of the differences between colleges and universities. As we’ve discussed, there are pros and cons of both types of institutions. Ultimately, your decision regarding college vs. university comes down to what you personally want out of a post-secondary education. One of the best ways to find out which type of school is the right fit is to embark on some college visits.

Read more: How to choose a college

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