What’s the Difference Between a College and a University?

Your friends in high school are talking about going to college, while others are headed to varying universities. What’s the difference between a college and a university? And which is the best choice for you?

According to the U.S. National Center for Education Statistics, there were an astounding 4,409 institutions granting degrees in higher education in the United States in the 2008-2009 time frame.  No wonder you’re a bit confused about what’s the difference between a college and a university!

College or University?

Most generally in the United States, the term college refers to educational pursuits beyond the high school level.  The term college is typically used to describe learning institutions with degree programs ranging from 2- to 4- year terms and includes community or junior colleges, technical or vocational schools, and separate colleges within the framework of a university.  Most colleges do not offer or only offer limited post-baccalaureate degree programs.

In contrast, the term university most often describes larger and more prestigious institutions of higher learning that offer undergraduate degrees along with graduate, post-baccalaureate programs, and sometimes doctoral degrees.  Some universities are known for their research and require professors to participate in research activities. So essentially, that is what’s the difference between a college and a university.

Even with these distinctions, the term college is sometimes used interchangeably with the term university.  To add to the confusion, there are several very prestigious colleges in the US that break all these rules including: The College of William & Mary, founded in 1693 and located in Williamsburg, Virginia and Dartmouth College, founded in 1769 and located in Hanover, New Hampshire.

In other parts of the world, such as the United Kingdom, Canada and Australia, they have different definitions for what’s the difference between a college and a university. For example, college refers to institutions that do not have the authority to grant degrees on there own, instead they can only grant certificates and diplomas or provide preliminary training in specific areas of study.

Public or Private

To further complicate things as you are trying to determine what’s the difference between a college and a university, you should also understand that there are both private and public colleges and universities in the United States.  Public institutions are typically partially funded by the state constitution or by statute in addition to endowments and student fees.  Private institutions are often corporations and funded by endowments and private gifts in tandem with tuition.  Some private institutions have religious affiliations.

Although several military institutions, including the U.S. Military Academy and the U.S. Air Force Academy are operated by the federal government, they are prohibited by law from directly controlling other educational institutions.


So how do you determine what’s the difference between a college and a university you might be interested in? The college ranking guides, Barron’s Profiles of American Colleges, The Princeton Reviews: College Rankings, and the US News and World Report: Best Colleges are published annually and are available for purchase, viewing at you local library or online.  In addition, Forbes annually publishes its list of America’s Top Colleges.


You may have heard that it’s important that the college you attend is accredited but wonder what accreditation is and why it’s important.  You may not realize that each state approves the operation of higher learning institutions in its state, but this accreditation is a business decision and does not ensure that the institutions meet the established accreditation standards.

Colleges and universities in the US are accredited by private agencies that are independent of the government.  The accreditation reviewing agencies develop criteria and evaluate the schools, in turn; the schools that meet the specified criteria are subsequently approved for accreditation in the US.

Accreditation is meant to ensure that degree programs meet certain minimum standards of quality in areas such as faculty, curriculum, financial soundness, libraries and other facilities required for student services. In addition, if you intend to transfer to another school or pursue a post-baccalaureate degree then accreditation is used for evaluation and acceptance of your course credits. Finally, federal financial aid is only awarded to students attending schools that have met accreditation standards.

For more information visit EducationUSA maintained by the U.S. Department of Education which includes information for U.S. students, foreign students wishing to attend school in the United States, and U.S. higher education professionals.

Best Fit

Now the you understand the difference between a college and a university, it’s best to do your homework in advance, inform yourself of the programs offered by the school and associated costs and realistically evaluate your options.   If it’s a fairly new institution or a school that is more obscure and offers only focused degree programs then verify that the school and its programs are accredited.

In the end, the name or ranking of your college or university is not what’s of paramount importance but what is critical is that the school you choose to attend is a good fit for you and offers the degree programs and educational opportunities you are seeking.

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Heidi Meier

Heidi Meier

Heidi Meier is a junior at the University of California, Davis pursuing degrees in communication and psychology. At school, Heidi can be found participating in psychology experiments or lounging on the quad. Outside of school, she enjoys exploring new cities, adventuring with friends, and playing with her puppy, Pancake.
Heidi Meier

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