This site requires Javascript. Please enable Javascript in your browser for this site.

Difference Between a College and University


At some point, you may have wondered what is the difference between a college and university. Many people often confuse and interchange the two terms, but there are some key differences between them. 

Depending on what country you are in, the difference between college and university are how the terms are used differently. In the United States, the two terms are used interchangeably, and both mean a school at the postsecondary level. Otherwise, the term university usually means a large institution that offers graduate and doctorate programs while college means undergraduate degrees or associate degrees.

In the United Kingdom, colleges are schools found with a university and they do not award degrees or are a part of the program that the university used to award a degree. Colleges can even be something other than a learning institution and can be related to the facilities or accommodations in a university. Sometimes, the term college will refer to a secondary education institution where students can earn advanced qualifications.

In Canada, the term college will usually refer to vocational, artistic, technical and scientific third state education. There is also a term in Canada of University college which means a college that is not recognized as being completely independent the same way as a university is.

In Australia, the term college means secondary education and is not commonly used for specific vocational schools or schools inside a university. The term faculty is more often used instead of college at the third level of education.

Harvard University and Harvard College

A perfect example is comparing Harvard University and Harvard College.

Harvard College has a four-year program for students looking to get their bachelor’s degree with about 6,500 students. Harvard University encompasses Harvard College and ten other schools that offer both graduate and professional programs.

Each of the graduate and professional schools are run independently, but they are still part of the same university. They keep their admissions offices and teaching and research faculty separate, and they do not offer any undergraduate programs.

Depending on the student and their needs, one of the two is a better choice for them. Many people have the idea that going to a university is better than going to a college. Both are equal academically, but if the student prefers a school with a wider choice of classes and programs, a university may be a better fit. If the student prefers small sized classes and being able to interact more with their professors, a college might be a better option.

Remember, the name of the school is less important than whether the school is a good fit for you personally. Decide what you want from your college experience and then choose a college or university that fits that ideal.

And knowing these differences may help you decide what kind of program and school is the best for you.  

What is a college?

Colleges are typically smaller than universities.This means they have smaller class sizes on average and provide students with a greater degree of personalized attention from faculty and advisers. Colleges are usually more devoted to undergraduate teaching and less devoted to research efforts, although many colleges still have robust research programs. They are also more course and subject-oriented in general, meaning that they may teach fewer abstract or theoretical subjects and place less emphasis on hands-on independent research than universities.

There are many colleges that are specialized because of their limited enrollment. Liberal arts colleges are the most common. There are also colleges that focus exclusively on the engineering disciplines. Since colleges are usually private colleges (not funded by state governments), many of them have religious affiliations or teach a unique curriculum.

Most colleges only offer undergraduate degrees and tend to have fewer program offerings in general than universities. Colleges are divided into academic departments, whereas universities may be divided into separate schools based on major type. Colleges may be two-year or four-year, and they typically provide students with associate’s or bachelor’s degrees. However, there are exceptions to this rule. Some colleges do offer graduate and professional degrees, including:

In many cases, these institutions are still called colleges simply because of tradition. They began as exclusively undergraduate institutions and later decided to offer graduate programs. Alumni are often reluctant to support a name change for their alma mater, so the college will keep its label to avoid upsetting people who take a lot of pride in the original name. 

There is also the rare situation of some colleges that are technically universities, but they can’t change their names because a university already exists with the same label. For example, Boston College is a university by every meaningful definition, but it can’t change its name to Boston University since that’s already a different school.


  • You will get more personalized attention from professors and academic advisors. 
  • There is a greater focus on undergraduate teaching.
  • Colleges often have more curriculum specialization for students with very specific interests. 
  • Most colleges have a closer, more unified student community. 


  • There are usually fewer resources and facilities for conducting research.
  • Faculty at colleges are less likely to be leading researchers in their fields.
  • Colleges don't offer direct access to more advanced degrees.
  • Most colleges will have fewer overall program offerings. 


What is a university?

Universities are usually larger institutions that offer both undergraduate and graduate degrees. Graduate programs at universities lead to master’s degrees and PhDs. Many universities also have associated professional schools for law, medicine, or business. In some cases, students who attend undergraduate programs at universities can earn both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in a shorter period of time. There are a few universities that have five-year programs for qualified students, particularly in fields where graduate degrees are vital in the job world (such as engineering). 

Often, universities have greater variety in their course and program offerings due to a larger and more diverse student body. Sometimes universities are divided into smaller subsections that might be called “colleges” like “The College of Arts & Sciences” for humanities undergraduates or “The College of Engineering” for engineering undergraduates. All of these “colleges” are still under the umbrella of the larger university. This means that undergraduates who choose to attend universities that are divided in this way usually have to make basic decisions about their fields of study before they enroll.

Universities also have more of a research focus overall. Since there are usually more students, and often the majority of them are not undergraduates, undergraduate teaching may take a backseat to faculty and graduate student research. On the positive side, universities provide many opportunities for hands-on learning through independent research and partnerships with graduate students on various projects. This leads to higher quality faculty because leaders in academic fields are drawn to institutions with extensive research facilities, although the focus on research over undergraduate teaching sometimes means that faculty at universities are less engaged with students.


  • Lots of research opportunities and facilities are available to students.
  • There is more access to advanced degrees and more interaction with graduate students.
  • Professors are more likely to be highly reputable figures in their fields of research.
  • There are more program offerings overall and a more diverse community of students. 


  • Universities will offer less personalized attention from professors and advisors.
  • Research is usually prioritized over undergraduate teaching. 
  • There is less common ground between the experiences of different students. 
  • It's harder to be indecisive about what you want to study or to switch majors at a university because of the bureaucracy involved.

How does a university receive its classification?

Before a college can receive a university status, it must meet a few requirements for at least five years:

1. Organization 

It must have a graduate studies program and its associated programs plus they must be separate from the undergraduate program and the entire organization itself. It must also have staff that has the primary responsibility for administering the graduate and professional programs.

2. Program

It must have an undergraduate studies program that leads to a bachelor’s degree in a wide range of academic subjects plus a graduate studies program that lead to advanced degrees in a minimum of three different academic or professional fields.

3. Resources

It must be able to financially support its graduate and professional programs and have the facilities and equipment required to exhibit the level of work needed in both.

4. Accreditation 

It must be accredited and depending on the state, possibly licensed and incorporated within the state.

Universities have evolved into large, widespread institutions with different academic programs that serve a broad range of students throughout the United States and around the world.

Now that the difference between the two is clear, choosing between a university and a college is entirely up to you. Remember, not one kind of institution is better than the other - universities and colleges are equal academically. It just depends on what you degree you want to pursue.  

Application Guide

Works as Management Team at Our School and Us