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Should You Go to College - Or a University?

Jun 4, 2010 Jennifer Williamson, Distance Columnist | 0 Comments

It’s not easy to decide which undergraduate school to attend. Adding to the confusion is the fact that, in many different countries, some undergraduate schools refer to themselves as “colleges,” others as “universities.” Which is right for you—and does it make a difference at all?

It depends. There are different connotations associated with schools that define themselves as colleges and those that prefer to be called universities. However, the difference is not as clear as you’d think. Here are a few factors that might affect whether a school calls itself a college or a university.


Colleges and universities are often differentiated by size. A college is sometimes used to refer to a small liberal arts school or community college, while “university” is often used to refer to larger schools. State schools, which tend to have large enrollments, are often referred to as universities.

Number of campuses


There are different connotations associated with schools that define themselves as colleges and those that prefer to be called universities.

Some institutions have only one campus. Others—such as the SUNY network of schools—have campuses in many different areas statewide, nationwide, or all over the world. The number of campuses may make the difference between a university and a college. Some universities are collections of smaller colleges on different campuses that house different programs.

Graduate programs

Sometimes, the differentiation is drawn between schools that do and don’t offer postgraduate programs. Some colleges offer only undergraduate programs, while universities offer both undergraduate programs and Master’s and doctorate degrees. Of course, this isn’t always the case—there are universities that offer undergraduate programs only, as well as colleges that offer graduate programs.

Research vs. teaching

To some, the difference between college and university has to do with what the professors are primarily dedicated to. Under this definition, colleges are devoted mainly to teaching the students. Universities have research components as well as teaching programs; many professors are required both to teach and conduct research. Graduate students can qualify for work-study programs in which they assist their professors with research projects.

State schools

State schools often refer to themselves as universities. These schools tend to be larger and some have subsidiary colleges and graduate degree programs as well. Academic quality can vary; often state schools don’t have the same reputation for rigorous academics that private schools have, although there are exceptions. The “Public Ivies,” listed in the Greene’s Guides, are state schools with excellent scholarly reputations. They include the University of Vermont, the University of New York at Binghamton, and the University of Delaware.

Community Colleges

Community colleges tend to offer two-year and vocational degrees; some have partnerships with other schools that allow students to transfer easily and earn a four-year degree. However, not all community colleges offer only two-year degrees; some offer four-year Bachelor’s degree programs as well. These schools are often referred to as colleges.

These differentiations are not set in stone. In most states, schools can decide for themselves whether to define themselves as colleges or universities. In fact, only three states—Massachusetts, New Jersey, and New York—have any regulations or requirements associated with either title. Some schools choose to call themselves colleges for historical reasons, even if they have multiple campuses and postgraduate programs. Others choose to call themselves universities, even without subsidiary colleges or other requirements associated with the name. 

Differences in Other Countries

In other countries, the difference between colleges and universities in other countries is more clear.

In Canada, for example, colleges are similar to community colleges in the US. They offer two-year associate degrees as well as vocational programs that teach specific trades. The term “university” is used to refer to schools that offer four-year degree programs, graduate degrees and research opportunities.

With schools In the United Kingdom, colleges are specialized schools that educate in a single subject, operated under an umbrella organization referred to as a university. As a student, you take classes at your selected college—but your degree is granted by a university that includes a number of colleges.

If you’re going to school in the US, chances are that the difference between a college and a university will be difficult to define. There’s a chance that your school has chosen to call itself a college even though it has many traits that are traditionally associated with universities, or vice versa. Instead of separating your college search based on whether a school calls itself a college or university, look at its enrollment size, research, diversity of programs, number of campuses and other factors, which will make a difference in your college experience.



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