College vs. University: What's the Difference?

Are There Distinctions Besides Just the Name?

Mark Miller/Photolibrary/Getty Images

Many people, college students included, aren't fully aware of the difference between a college and a university. In fact, while the names are used interchangeably, they often refer to completely different school programs. Before you decide to apply to a certain school, it's good to know what distinguishes one from the other.

College vs. University: The Degrees Offered 

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.

In general -- and, of course, there are exceptions -- 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.

Most universities, on the other hand, offer both undergraduate and graduate degrees. Prospective college students who wish to obtain a Master's or PhD. will likely need to attend a university.

Many university structures also include colleges that specialize in undergraduate programs or in a specific profession. This is most often a law school or medical school that is under the umbrella of the larger university. 

Two of the best-known schools in the U.S. offer perfect examples:

  • Harvard College is the undergraduate school of Harvard University. Students may earn their liberal arts Bachelor's from the college and move into a graduate program at the university to pursue a Master's or doctorate.
  • The University of Michigan offers both undergraduate degrees and graduate degrees. Students could, for example, get a B.A. in Politics and then a law degree without changing schools.

    If you aren't sure how things work at your particular institution or at an institution you're thinking of attending, do some investigating on the campus website. They will most likely break down programs based on the kinds of degrees they offer.

    School Size and Course Offerings

    In general, colleges tend to have a smaller student body and faculty than universities. This is a natural result of the limited degree programs they offer. Because universities include graduate studies, more students attend these schools at one time and more staff is required to handle the students' needs.

    Universities also tend to offer a greater variety of degrees and classes than a college. This leads to a more diverse student population with a wider array of interests and studies.

    Likewise, students will find smaller classes within the college system than they would in a university. While universities may have courses with 100 or more students in a lecture hall, a college may offer the same course subject in a room with only 20 or 50 students. This offers more individual attention to each student.