Colleges vs Universities: Differences Between College and University

By Jordan Fabel •  Updated: November 14, 2022  •  6 min read  •  College
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When you start looking into higher education options, you will notice there are colleges and universities. You might think they are the same thing, and often they are used interchangeably. However, colleges and universities are not the same.

Before you decide on a college or a university, it’s important to understand the key differences. Let’s look at what each is and what the differences are between colleges and universities.

What is a College?

The New Jersey Office of the Secretary of Higher Education defines a college as a “postsecondary educational institution that provides instruction beyond the 12th grade level in programs that satisfy the requirements for a degree at the associate, baccalaureate or graduate level.”

You will often find several undergraduate degree programs throughout a college. However, colleges don’t always offer graduate programs.

It’s rather common for students to start at a college and transfer to a university after two or four years of study. In some areas, the community college programs feed into the local university programs.

What is a University?

For an institution to be considered a university, it will first be a college. The college will apply for university status and must meet the following requirements for at least five years:

Often, a university will include colleges. For example, Harvard University includes Harvard College. The college is an undergraduate school of the university where a student may earn a bachelor’s degree before moving on to a graduate program offered by the university.

A Few More Common Differences Between Colleges and Universities

  1. Colleges tend to be smaller when it comes to the student body and faculty than universities.
  2. Universities often offer more degree programs compared to colleges.
  3. Colleges offer smaller class sizes than universities.
  4. Universities often offer four-year degree programs and graduate studies, while colleges may offer two-year degree programs, along with four-year degree programs.
  5. Typically, it’s easier to gain admittance into a college than a university.

Colleges vs. Universities: Which is Right for You?

When it’s time to choose the right option for you, there are several important factors to consider. Let’s look at some of the key factors before you make your decision.

The Location

Going out-of-state for school might be appealing, but it also can become rather expensive. However, if you have been offered scholarships, it might be the perfect choice for you.

Most community colleges are attended locally, while universities and some liberal arts colleges may be found out of state. Depending on where you live, you might choose between a college or a university based on the location.

The Cost

Typically, a university will be more expensive than a college. This is especially true if you go out of state to attend a university. Community colleges in your state tend to be the cheapest option.

While money shouldn’t be the deciding factor, it should be considered. You want to make sure you can afford the school you choose, whether it’s a college or a university. Of course, there are scholarships, grants, and other financial aid you can consider, too.

The Degree Programs

Maybe the most important factor when choosing between a college and a university is the degree program you need. When you know what you want to do after you graduate, it’s much easier to narrow down the choice. If you’re not sure what you want to do, it might be best to start with some classes at a college first.

The Experience

Do you want to go away to college and live in a dorm room? Maybe you prefer to stay at home and commute. Colleges and universities often offer a different experience.

For example, if you attend a community college, you might be taking courses at night, after you’ve finished a full day of work. However, if you attend a university, you might work on campus (or not work at all) and live in a dorm room.

The decision between a college and a university may depend on the experience you want. The common college experience is most often found on a university campus.

The Schedule

Do you plan to work a full-time job while attending classes? If so, living on campus at a university might not be possible. Consider your schedule before choosing. While many universities do cater to busy working adults, they don’t always offer the same flexibility as a college might offer you.

Usually, you will narrow down your list of possible colleges and universities by choosing your field of study. Then, your grades, SAT scores, ACT scores, and extracurriculars might help to narrow that list further. Once you have a list of options, you can use the factors listed above to help you choose between a college and a university.

What About an Online College or University?

Maybe you don’t want to go off to college or you simply don’t have the time. An online degree program might be the right choice for you. This type of degree program offers flexibility, no matter where you live.

Both colleges and universities offer online degree programs you can choose from. Before you make your final decision, consider all the factors above. Then, you can choose between a college or a university, and whether you want to attend online or in-person.

Jordan Fabel

Jordan Fabel

Covering different 'paths' that people's lives can take. Creative, foster parent, ticket dismissal, you get the idea. Exploring the requirements, certifications, exams, and obviously, approved courses along each path.