What is the Difference Between a College and a University?

Confused between choosing a college or a university? Here are the difference between a College and a University to help you figure out which is better?

TCM Staff

10th May 2021

It is very common that parents and students at the earlier stage hunt for different academic options available for them right after high school. Choosing the right college or a university is definitely one in that.

A common misconception is that colleges are private while universities are public. This is not the definition that distinguishes the two. Instead, it is quite often the difference in the level of degree programs offered.

The term university usually means a large institution that offers graduate and doctorate or Ph.D. programs while college means undergraduate degrees or associate degrees. These terms are used interchangeably and often create confusion in the student’s mind.

Are you one of those who are confused between a university and a college? Don't know what to choose? Then do not delay! Read further to know what actually these two terms mean and also the differences between them to make sure that the academic option you choose is right for you.

Table of contents

What is a College?

A smaller institution that characteristically offers undergraduate degree programs is termed as a college. Colleges such as community college and junior college might offer degrees of two years' duration. A college typically offers degrees in arts and science for a duration of four years.

Few colleges correspondingly offer advanced degrees, for instance, Master's degrees or other graduate degrees, after a student has earned a Bachelor's degree.

Types of Colleges

Colleges are usually small, with smaller class sizes, and students tend to have more individual attention from faculty and are goal-oriented. There are many specialized colleges in the US, which are mentioned below.

1. Public colleges

These are the colleges that are funded by local and state governments and usually offer lower tuition rates than private colleges, particularly for students who are residents of the state where a college is located.

2. Private colleges 

 These colleges usually rely mainly on tuition, fees, and private sources of funding. Private donations can sometimes provide generous financial aid packages for students.

3. Community College 

They offer two-year programs leading to the Associate of Arts (AA) or Associate of Science (AS) degree. These colleges also have technical and vocational programs with close links to secondary/high schools, community groups, and employers in the local community. Example - Santa Barbara city college

4. Junior College

It offers two years of studies corresponding to those in the first two years of a four-year college and that often offers technical, vocational, and liberal studies to the adults of a community.

5. Vocational Technical or Career College

Technical Colleges commonly offer programs in automotive technology, cosmetology, culinary arts, health sciences, and skilled trades, such as welding and more. These programs may result in an Associate degree, Certificate of completion, or Diploma, depending on the school.

6. Liberal Art College

Liberal Arts Colleges are four-year institutions that primarily offer undergraduate education. They concentrate on a well-rounded general education and emphasize problem-solving, critical thinking, and communication skills. Example - Dartmouth College

Also Read: For-Profit Colleges vs Not-For-Profit Colleges

Some colleges focus on a specific interest or student population which includes the following.

  • Arts colleges: These are the colleges that mainly focus on the arts.

  • Single-sex colleges: All four-year public colleges, and most private colleges, are coed. But there are some private colleges that are particularly for men or for women.

  • Religiously affiliated colleges: Some private colleges are connected to religious faith. The connection may be historic only, or it may affect day-to-day student life.

  • Online colleges: These colleges provide students with the opportunity to take courses and complete a degree program completely online.

What is a University?

A university is termed as an institution that provides both undergraduate and graduate degrees. Universities present a graduate curriculum leading to a Master's degree or a Ph.D. Universities might also hold Medical or Law school for students who wish to pursue professional degrees. Mostly, universities own more contradictory offerings of sessions and programs than a college as it enrolls a larger number of students.   

The main difference between university and college is that a university offers graduate programs leading to a Masters or Doctorate degree. They offer a wide range of resources and are bigger than colleges. 

It is either owned by the government or private individuals or a combination of both. They tend to be larger than schools and hence focus on scholarly or scientific research.  

They tend to be larger than schools and hence focus on scholarly or scientific research.

So, technically a university is a superset of a college offering a multitude of programs and courses to choose from usually showcasing an interdisciplinary design of the study.

Types of Universities

1. Public universities 

These Universities are partly funded by state and local governments; every state has at least one public university. They offer lower tuition fees to in-state students than to students from out of state. The case can be different for some universities. 

2. Private Universities

These Universities do not receive government funding. They are financed through tuition fees, endowments, and private donations. Their fees tend to be higher than those of public universities.

Also Read: How to afford a private university

3. Research Universities 

These are the universities that basically focus on research-related topics. They mainly consist of some of the top universities in the US that include a wide variety of programs at undergraduate and graduate levels. Cutting edge equipment and extensive libraries are part of the institution. Faculty members are distinguished experts in their field.

4. Teaching Universities 

These are the universities that mainly focus on imparting knowledge rather than research. Faculties' main purpose is to teach but they can still conduct research at a personal level. You might not find as many facilities at these types of institutions, but you may have more face time with your instructors.

What are the differences between College and University? 

The difference between a college and a university may not generally be evident to students or their parents, as they advance towards postsecondary education they may start to ponder about the contrasts between a university and a college. 

To many, the word “college” indicates a smaller institution, perhaps offering a smaller range of educational programs, generally at the level of a 4-year degree program. “University”, then, would be used to describe a large institution that grants graduates as well as undergraduate studies.

There is a whole other world to these two words than these general definitions. Now, let us compare colleges vs universities with respect to various criteria,

1. Definition and Campus Size

  • As discussed above, a college is a learning institution that offers degree and diploma courses to its students. 

  • While a university is considered to be a higher education research center that offers an award degree and diploma to its learners.

  • A university usually has a large infrastructure as compared to colleges. Both college and university can provide very different learning environments and teaching styles.

2. Size and Student Enrollment

  • You may have noticed that many smaller private schools call themselves colleges, while the big flagship state schools are typically universities. 

  • This is because colleges and universities get their names based on their size. Small schools are colleges, big ones are universities. 

  • The number of students in a college is less as compared to the university since the availability of seats in college is limited. 

3. Scope, Affiliation, and Authority

  • The scope of college as compared to the university is less since many colleges can be affiliated to a single university. 

  • Affiliation to a college can be granted by a university or the college can behave as an autonomous body. Conversely, University doesn’t require any affiliation from another university. 

  • When it comes to authority, the chief of a college is known as a Dean or Director while the chief of the university is known as Vice-Chancellor.

4. The Courses or Degree Awarded

  • Colleges have a limited number of courses. On the other hand, universities provide a diverse range of courses and programs.  

  • The college does not offer a research program to its students, but the university offers the same. 

  • Colleges only offer and focus on undergraduate programs. While a four-year school may offer Bachelor's degrees, many community and junior colleges only offer two-year or Associate's degrees. Some colleges do offer graduate studies as well.

  • Meanwhile, most of the universities offer both undergraduate and graduate degrees. Prospective college students who want to achieve a master’s degree in a Ph.D. will mostly have to attend a university.

Which one is better: University or College?

It is common for students to have a question if a university is better than a college. Well, it depends on your subject of interest and campus life you are expecting it to be. Although, It is important for you to know that a College and a University are academically equal. 

For instance, if you are a student who wants to attend a school with a wide variety of programs, extracurricular activities, and classes, then a university may be a better choice. But there is a drawback to this as well. Many times a university will have faculty that focus more on research than they do on teaching which makes it difficult for students to have face-to-face time or conversation with professors when they have to clarify certain doubts.

If you are a student who values small class sizes and a closer relationship with professors, then a college might be the best option for you. If you are a student considering getting a Bachelor’s or Graduate degree, your school’s name is less important than whether or not the school is a good fit. 

So, think about what you want your college experience to be like, and then choose the college or university that meets your expectations. 

Colleges or Universities- Which to Choose?

Differences between College and University will help in narrowing your choice. With the options of educational institutions available for students, finding the school that best suits you can be tough. The following factors can help a student clarify your thoughts.   

Career Goals: What are your future objectives? What sort of profession would you like to begin with? These are simply the inquiries that you ought to present yourself before you settle on your decision.

Academic Record: Based on your academic record, you may have a clearer idea regarding the places where you can be admitted. 

Learning Style: Class size can have a very big impact on one’s education. Universities can have a class consisting of hundreds of students in a single class whereas a college may consist of 25-30 students in a single class. So, making a choice of being a self-learner or wanting to be directed by experts can be the reason for choosing between one. 

Financial Situation: How much can you afford for your education can be the breakpoint of your choice. Some colleges and universities are much more generous with merit and/or need-based aid than others. So take the right decision about the college or university you are opting for.

Isn’t it important to know the Pros and Cons of colleges and universities while brainstorming which one to opt for?

Pros and Cons of Joining a College



There is often a greater focus on undergraduate teaching.

Colleges don't offer direct access to more advanced degrees.

Most of the colleges have a closer and united student community.

Faculty at colleges are less likely to be leading researchers in their fields.

High chances of getting more personalized attention from professors.

Most colleges will offer fewer programs. 

They often have more curriculum specialization for students.

The availability of resources and facilities for conducting research is less.

Pros and Cons of Joining a University



The availability of research opportunities and facilities to students is very high.

There is less common ground between the experiences of different students.

Professors are highly reputable in their fields of research.

There is less face-to-face interaction between students and professors.

More diverse programs are offered.

Research is prioritized over undergraduate teaching.

There is more access to advanced degrees.

It is difficult to switch majors at a university.

Top colleges and universities in the U.S.

The table below shows the top colleges and universities in the U.S.



Boston College 

University Of Massachusetts

Virginia College

Northeastern University

Wesleyan College

Indiana University Bloomington  

Bay State College

Arizona State University  

Ashworth College

The University of Arizona


It all boils right down to the size of the school system. Universities tend to supply full undergrad and graduate programs, which means there are multiple schools inside its system. 

Many students ask if a university is better than a college. Well, the choice lays in the hands of a student to choose a college or a university for pursuing the degree.

While there may be differences between a college and a university, the real question to ask is whether that given institution, regardless of name, seems like it will be a good fit for you

Both of them have their own ups and downs, it completely depends on the student to choose it. However, the change in infrastructure may sometimes impact the quality of education being provided. 

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