Difference between College and University

A college is a small goal-oriented institution that usually offers mostly undergraduate degrees. A university is an institution of higher education and research that provides academic degrees in a variability of subjects. Learn the differences between college and university here.

Updated by Shubharthi Dey on 26th February 2019

College vs. University - Thin line of difference

College and University - Both are terms that come across in every student’s life. As the student or their parents progress towards postsecondary education options they may begin to wonder about the differences between a college and a university.

The terms are used interchangeably and often create confusion in the student’s mind.  

The distinction between College and University must be known to the student in order to make an informed decision about his/her education. 

In the US, enrolling in University or College follows once the high school or secondary school is completed. College and University programs begin within the thirteenth year of college once a student is seventeen or eighteen years old or older.

A four-year college or university offers Bachelors degrees. Colleges that supply these degrees are referred to as undergraduate colleges.

Many colleges offer graduate programs in designated subjects. However, it's typically universities that provide graduate programs. So Americans use the word university and not college when they talk about the graduate study.

Difference between college and university

Before moving on let's just have a look into the key differences which makes a College different from a University.

Key differences between university and college

  • Definition - A college is a learning institution which offers degree and diploma courses to its students. A university is a higher education research center which offers and awards degree and diploma to its learners.

  • Scope - The scope of college as compared to the university is less since many colleges can be affiliated to a single university. College does not offer a research program to its students, but the university offers the same. 

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

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

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, Masters degree or other graduate degrees, after a student has earned a Bachelors degree.


[Also Read: Best Online Colleges for you


Specialized Colleges in the US 

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. 

What is a College?source - pexels.com

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.

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.

Technical/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.

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.

Top Online Colleges in the US

Some of the best colleges in the United States are given here.

  • Boston College 

  • Ashworth College

  • Bay State College

  • Wesleyan College  

  • Virginia College

What is a University?

A university is termed as an institution that provides both undergraduate and graduate degree. Universities present graduate curriculum leading to a Masters 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 offering of session 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

Public Vs. Private Universities

Public 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. 

Private 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: For-Profit Colleges vs Not For Profit Colleges]


Research Universities Vs. Teaching Universities 

Research Universities basically focus on research related topics. They mainly consist of some of the top universities 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.

Teaching Universities 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.

Some of the top universities in the United States which are known for providing the best online education had been listed in the below table.

Rank Best Universities 
1 University Of Massachusetts
2 Northeastern University
3 Indiana University Bloomington
4 Arizona State University
5 The University of Arizona

Difference between College and University 

Some of the differences between the colleges and universities are given below.

  1. Definition - A college is a learning institution which offers degree and diploma courses to its students. A university is a higher education research center which offers an award degree and diploma to its learners.

  2. Scope - The scope of college as compared to the university is less since many colleges can be affiliated to a single university. College does not offer a research program to its students, but the university offers the same. 

  3. Affiliation - 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. 

  4. Courses Available - Colleges have a limited number of courses. On the other hand, universities provide a diverse range of courses and programs.  

  5. Authority - The chief of a college is known as a Dean or Director while the chief of the university is known as Vice-Chancellor. 

  6. Students Enrolled - The number of students in a college is less as compared to the university since the availability of seats in college is limited. 

  7. Campus- A university usually has a large infrastructure as compared to colleges.

Criteria for a College to become a University

The following requirements must be met for a College to apply for University status. 

College Vs Universitysource - pexels.com

  • Programs - It should include an undergraduate program that principals to a bachelor’s degree in an extensive range of academic subjects as well as graduate studies program.

  • Organization - An organization must include graduate studies program and its associated programs also can be detached from undergraduate programs and the complete organization.

  • Resources - It must be essential to be able to economically hold its graduate and professional programs and must include amenities and equipment needed to display the level of effort required in both.

  • Accreditation - It must be accredited and reliant on the state, conceivably approved and merged within the state. 

Is a University better than a College?

Well, that depends specifically upon the choice of the student. A College and a University are academically equal. Depending on the student’s needs, one type of institution may be a better choice. For example, if a student wants to attend a school with a variety of programs and classes, then a university may be a better choice. 

If a student values small class sizes and a closer relationship with professors, then a college might be the best option. 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. Think about what you want your college experience to be like, and choose the college or university that meets your expectations.

Making the choice 

College Vs. University - A difficult choice. With the options of educational institution available for students, finding the school that best suits you can be tough. Following criteria can help a student clarify his/her thoughts.   

Career Goals 

What are your future goals? What kind of career do you want to start with? These are the questions that you should be asking yourself before you make your choice. 

If you want to be job-ready in a short amount of time, then you should look for a career college. However, if you aren’t sure about your career and want to start by achieving a general education then a four-year institution might be the correct choice. 

Academic Record 

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

Colleges usually have an open-admission policy which means that anyone who completes a high school degree is eligible to enroll in the college. Competition for spots in top institutions is very fierce and one needs a very high-grade score to be eligible. 

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. 

Research facilities and equipment provided in small colleges are of low caliber as compared to university. So, making a choice of being a self-learner or want 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? Community Colleges are way cheaper than four-year institutions. 

This could be the reason why students begin with the community college and then take a transfer to a 4-year school.  

College experience you want to take with you 

Most of the colleges don’t offer dorm facilities so if you want to stay with your classmates in small bunkers then universities can be your choice. 

If you have a job or family and want to fit your class schedules according to your work or travel commutes, then career colleges can be chosen. They provide flexibility to students. 

Another aspect is the co-curricular activities, where students can involve themselves. Universities provide a greater scope of this as compared to colleges.


It all boils right down to the size of the school system. Universities tend to supply full undergrad and graduate programs, that 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.

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


  Are online colleges accredited?

Yes. Most of the online colleges are accredited as it highlights the educational standards of the particular institution. 

  How are online degrees perceived in the workplace?

It hasn’t been too long ago that online degrees were not taken seriously by employers, treating the credentials as certificate programs. The attitude back then was that these non-traditional degrees were not comparable to degrees earned from traditional schools in an on-campus setting.

However, attitudes have changed as new technologies boosted the popularity of virtual learning, encouraging the participation of traditional schools in this new format.

  Are there age limitations to attend U.S. universities? 

In general, you must have completed high school and you must be at least 17 years of age.

  What is the academic calendar for universities in the United States?

The academic year usually runs from August through May with breaks for holidays. Most universities use either the semester system (two terms), the quarter system (students attend three out of four total terms), or the trimester system (three terms).

  Can I transfer to a U.S. university from a university outside of the United States?

Yes, although you may lose some credits and require extra time to complete your degree.

  Why should I attend community college?

Community colleges offer lower costs, easier admission policies, close ties to state schools, and many of the required courses connected to a degree.

  What is a liberal arts college?

A liberal arts college offers courses in humanities, languages, math, social and natural sciences and students take 25-50% of their courses in their major.