College vs University – What’s the Difference and How Do I Choose?

Choosing an educational pathway after high school can be an exciting but daunting challenge for students and their families. Understanding the key differences between colleges and universities and discovering as much as possible about the various types of learning environments can make the process of selecting the right educational institution a lot easier.

Types of Colleges

Many students and their parents are unclear about the definition of a college vs university and wonder how to go about choosing the right type of school for their situation. Although the terms “college” and “university” are often used interchangeably, in reality, there are some significant differences between these two types of institutions.

While the definition of “college” can vary in different parts of the world, in the United States, the term typically refers to a smaller school that offers undergraduate degrees. American colleges can provide either two-year or four-year undergraduate education programs.

Two-year colleges, also known as junior colleges, are often funded through local taxes. They are designed primarily to serve the needs of students who reside in the immediate area of the school. For that reason, they are frequently referred to as “community” or “city” colleges.

Students may acquire their associate’s degree at a two-year or junior college. After two years, they can transfer to a four-year college to take upper division courses and purse their bachelor’s degree.

A subset of the two-year college category, technical colleges typically offer specialized vocational training. Geared toward students who want to pursue careers in areas such as computer technology, agriculture or office management, technical colleges often have strong relationships with local businesses that are keen to hire skilled graduates in their fields.

In contrast to two-year colleges, which draw the majority of their student population from the geographical vicinity of the school, four-year colleges may attract students from a much wider pool, including national or international applicants. Four-year colleges also often have more rigorous admission standards than their two-year counterparts. While two-year colleges enroll students in general education classes intended to introduce them to the basic foundation of a range of topics, four-year colleges have more extensive and advanced course offerings.

Four-year colleges must offer the higher division classes necessary to satisfy requirements for a bachelor’s degree. These advanced classes presume that the student has already mastered the prerequisite knowledge and skills required to succeed in more challenging and in-depth coursework. A bachelor’s degree obtained from a four-year college provides a broad-based education that enables students to obtain work in many jobs. Some careers, such as teaching or nursing, may require applicants to obtain additional coursework specific to their prospective field of work.

Four-year colleges don’t offer graduate programs that lead to master’s or doctoral degrees. However, students who successfully complete a bachelor’s degree program are typically well-equipped to apply to graduate programs at other schools.


A university is a larger educational institution composed of departments in many different fields of study, such as English, science, physical education or art. Individual departments are grouped into closely related areas of study, such as liberal arts, science, business or fine arts. The related departments are called “colleges.” University colleges are administered by deans who operate under the broad umbrella of the larger university’s established rules and policies. At Harvard University, for example, all undergraduates enroll in Harvard College, the institution’s liberal arts college. Many Harvard graduates go on to apply for admission to the school’s graduate or professional programs.

As opposed to liberal arts universities that are primarily devoted to teaching, research universities place a high level of emphasis on student research and exposure to the latest advances in their areas of interest. Students may have ample opportunities for conducting hands-on research under the supervision of a renowned specialist in their field. The curriculum at research universities is often highly specialized, allowing students to focus on the classes that are of greatest interest to them and opt out of courses outside of a narrow field of study.

Public and Private Colleges and Universities

Both colleges and universities may be funded through local or state taxes. In the United States, schools that fall into this category are called “public” universities or colleges. Although usually more expensive than local two-year colleges, the costs of attending a four-year public school are partially offset through these tax revenues, making them more affordable than private institutions. Every state in the USA has at least one publicly funded state university. Although both in-state and out-of-state students are welcome to apply for admission to state schools, in-state students pay lower tuition and associated fees than students from out of state since the taxes their families pay help subsidize the cost of education.

Private universities and colleges are often highly competitive schools with high price tags to match. Private schools are usually funded through a combination of student tuition revenue and endowments by alumni or wealthy benefactors. Students pay a premium for access to the top-tier faculty and cutting edge facilities that can be found at many private universities.  At the most exclusive and prestigious private colleges, many students are lured by the prestige that derives from attending an exclusive “name” college. Some private colleges are affiliated with specific religions, although admission is usually open to students of all faiths.  

While a bachelor degree is the goal at colleges, many universities include graduate schools where students can pursue advanced degrees. Upon completion of undergraduate programs, students may choose to obtain a job or immediately enroll in a graduate program. Possibilities for graduate degrees include master’s degrees and doctoral degrees as well as law and medical degrees. Some graduate schools are also affiliated with well-known hospitals where medical students can get hands-on experience. Although some students choose to pursue graduate studies at the same institution where they obtained their undergraduate degree, most apply to new schools. Attending a different school for their graduate program exposes students to fresh perspectives and new faculty, broadening their educational experience.

Choosing a College or University

Community Colleges

For students on a tight budget, a two-year community college can be a smart option. Tuition is usually quite low, making community college an affordable option for almost anyone. Since the schools are typically close to the homes where they grew up, college students can often avoid the expense of dormitory life by continuing to live with their parents and commute to classes. This living situation can also make the transition to campus life easier for students who are apprehensive about leaving behind familiar people and places, helping them ease into a life of adult independence. However, schools with large commuter populations can make it more difficult for students to meet new friends and embrace the full college experience.

Non-traditional students, such as mature students who are returning to school after years spent working or raising families, make up a large percentage of the student body at some two-year colleges. Community colleges often offer flexible schedules, enabling students to work during the day or tend to the needs of their families, and attend classes at night or on weekends. For even greater flexibility, many two-year colleges also offer a lot of their courses in an online format, allowing students to learn according to the schedule and pace that best suits their lifestyle and individual needs.

Students who need to boost test scores or acquire additional instruction in some core classwork also turn to two-year colleges, where they can find the help they need to remedy any deficits in their educational preparation. Non-native English speakers may also enroll in two-year colleges to improve their language skills prior to entering a more challenging higher education environment.

Four-year colleges are often smaller than universities, providing a more intimate student body experience. Class sizes can also be quite different at smaller schools versus larger institutions. Small colleges offer less crowded classes and lower student-to-teacher ratios, potentially giving pupils more personal attention in the classroom.


On the other hand, for students who value a diverse learning environment with a student body drawn from a wide spectrum of backgrounds, large universities might be the perfect choice. As another consideration, large universities often support big-name competitive sports teams, which can enhance school spirit and the overall campus culture. By comparison, small private campuses may have fewer organized events and extracurricular opportunities than big universities, as well as fewer majors. Weighing personal preferences and campus lifestyles can help students determine which schools are the right fit for them.

Cost Considerations

Finances are another significant area to think about when choosing a college or university. Although scholarships and federal financial aid may be available for some students, high tuition bills and living expenses at selective private schools can still be burdensome to many families. When considering an expensive private school, setting an appointment to talk to a school admission counselor about financial award opportunities can give families a realistic picture of their student’s prospects for monetary assistance.

Academics and Admission Requirements

Academic rigor is another important component of the college selection process. Exceptionally strong students who plan to pursue graduate level studies may wish to strive for the most demanding academic setting possible to ensure they are prepared for their advanced studies.

Finally, admission requirements should be another topic of discussion during the college selection process. Some small, prestigious colleges admit very few freshmen each year, making the admission process both rigorous and potentially highly stressful for applicants. Large research institutions can be equally competitive since they tend to attract outstanding scholars. As a safeguard, it’s a good idea to create a list of potential schools that includes both “reach” colleges and universities, representing dream schools where admissions are very competitive, and “safe” schools where the student’s chances for admission are high.