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


When you start looking into degree programs, things can get confusing fast. Some postsecondary schools call themselves colleges. Others are universities. And let’s not forget that there are community colleges, technical colleges, vocational colleges, and the plain old “schools.”

So what do all of these classifications mean?

We often use “college” and “university” interchangeably. The distinction doesn’t mean much in plain English. People say “go to college” or “she went to college” regardless of if the school in question is a university or a college. It conveys the same idea: school after high school.

In the same vein, everyone understands “college student” to mean someone who is attending a  postsecondary school.

But while it’s not always easy to pin down, there is a difference between a college and a university, and there are important distinctions between the types of colleges you can attend. We’ll walk you through each of them, but first, we’re going to answer this pesky question: what’s the difference between a college and a university?

Differences between a college and a university

Like many confusing distinctions in academia, there aren’t any universally true differences between the terms “college” and “university.” But generally speaking, there are two distinctions: colleges are smaller, and they’re more specialized. Here’s what that means (and doesn’t mean).

Colleges are smaller than universities

Typically, colleges have fewer students and smaller campuses. You may hear that colleges have smaller classes or better student to faculty ratios, which can be a huge advantage—but again, that’s not always the case.

General courses do tend to be much larger at a university, sometimes crowding hundreds of students into a lecture hall. But it completely depends on the subject, the level of the course, and the school. At the graduate level, it’s not uncommon for university courses to have less than 10 students per class. And some universities manage to maintain low student-faculty ratios across all of their classes.

Later on, we’ll talk about a notable exception to the “colleges are smaller” difference, but there are other examples as well.

Colleges are more specialized than universities

Colleges usually have a smaller selection of disciplines than universities. “A college usually offers a four-year bachelor’s degree in the arts (such as English, history, drama) or sciences (such as biology, computer science, engineering),” the U.S. Department of Education says. “Some colleges also offer advanced degrees, such as master’s or other graduate degrees, after you’ve earned your bachelor’s degree.”

Alternatively, the USDE says, “Universities offer bachelor’s, master’s, and doctorate degrees, and sometimes have professional schools such as a law school or medical school. Universities tend to be larger than colleges, may have larger class sizes, and often focus on scholarly or scientific research.”

So calling colleges more specialized is really a way to look at the glass as half full.

We’ll talk about these in a moment, but technical, vocational, trade, and career colleges are highly focused, often providing a much smaller selection of programs than even a community college or a junior college. Sometimes, though, this focused selection includes programs you may not find at a university.

But here’s what “more specialized” doesn’t mean. It doesn’t mean colleges have inherently better programs.

Colleges and universities often have great reputations for particular programs. Just because a university offers a greater variety of degrees doesn’t mean it’s a Jack-of-all-trades and a master of none. They may actually be a master of many. To know which school truly has the better program, you have to compare them directly.

The biggest difference between a college and a university though, depends on what you mean by “college.” So let’s look at the different types.

What is a community college?

Usually, “community college” refers to publicly funded two-year institutions. These schools provide associate’s degrees, certificates, and diplomas in a variety of subjects. Most people go to community colleges for some combination of six reasons:

  • They’re usually more affordable than a four-year college or university. (According to the Community College Research Center, the cost of tuition and fees is almost one third that of four year institutions.)
  • A community college was the closest school to home.
  • Credits from a community college can usually transfer to a four-year college.
  • The class sizes are, on average, smaller.
  • There’s a specific program for a specific job they want.
  • Community colleges are usually much easier to get into (the national average acceptance rate is 76% vs. 59% at a four-year institution).

Since most community colleges are publicly funded, they’re often accredited by the same institutions as the local four-year schools. This makes them well-suited for dual enrollment programs, which allow high school students to attend classes at a postsecondary school to complete their graduation requirements.

Some community colleges partner with local businesses to provide job training programs that are directly relevant to the local community.

Here are some notable statistics from the Community College Research Center:

  • Students from low income families are almost three times as likely to start their postsecondary education at community colleges as students from high income families.
  • Students whose parents never graduated from college are almost twice as likely to start at community college.
  • 81% of entering community college students say they want to enroll in a four year institution, but only 33% actually do that within six years.
  • 14% of all community college students go on to earn a bachelor’s degree or higher.
  • Students who complete an associate’s degree from a community college earn an average of $5,400 more per year than those who drop out (data is limited).
  • Almost half of all students who complete a degree at a four-year school attended a community college in the last 10 years.

Sometimes “community college” is used to refer to junior colleges and technical colleges as well. From what I could gather, the CCRC uses the term to refer to all two-year schools.

What is a junior college?

The first junior college in the United States was Joliet Junior College, established in 1901. Joliet was intended to function as the thirteenth and fourteenth year of high school and to prepare students for two more years at a university.

Since then, like all junior colleges, Joliet Junior College has evolved to encompass a far more expansive curriculum and includes programs that don’t feed into a four-year university. And while it began with six students, it now boasts over 15,000. That’s more students than some universities.

Until the 1970s, all two-year postsecondary schools were referred to as junior colleges. What we now refer to as community colleges, technical colleges, vocational colleges, and trade schools all fell under this one umbrella. Since then, “junior college” has generally referred to private two-year schools, whereas “community college” has referred to public two-year schools.

When considering a program at a junior college, you may need to pay more attention to accreditation. Privately funded institutions include schools funded by religious groups and other foundations, and some of them are bound to be more concerned about being accredited by national organizations than regional ones. Plus, if someone wants to run a fake school that just sells degrees, you’re not going to secure public funding to do it. [Insert joke about a publicly-funded school you don’t like.]

Not all private institutions are “degree mills,” but all degree mills are private institutions. But don’t worry, spotting a fake school is kind of like spotting fake money. They might look the same at a glance—which is what they’re designed to do—but if you know what to look for, it’s obvious. You can learn how to spot the fakes here.

But enough about that. In the vast majority of cases, you’re going to get the same experience from a junior college that you would at a community college.

What is a technical college?

You may see technical colleges lumped in with community colleges or junior colleges, but at the very least, they’re a subcategory of these institutions. You may also see them referred to as trade schools, career schools, or vocational colleges.

Someone could make the argument that these are all separate categories of schools with nuanced differences, but the U.S. Department of Education suggests they can be used interchangeably, with one small distinction:

“Technical schools teach the science behind the occupation, while vocational schools focus on hands-on application of skills needed to do the job. You may earn a diploma or a certificate, prepare for a licensing exam, or study to begin work as an apprentice or journeyman in a skilled trade.”

These schools generally offer programs that are designed to be completed in two years or less, including associate’s degrees, certificates, and diplomas. I mentioned before that some community colleges partner with businesses to develop job-specific programs, and that’s a technical college’s specialty.

At a four-year institution, or even a designated community or junior college, you’ll inevitably take a number of classes that don’t directly pertain to your eventual career. That shouldn’t ever be the case at a technical college, unless you’re just dabbling in a trade for fun.

Here are just a handful of the highly specialized programs you might find at a technical college:

  • Underwater welding
  • Land surveying
  • Power utilities
  • Culinary arts
  • Garden and landscaping
  • Home inspection
  • Aviation maintenance
  • Machining and manufacturing
  • Heating, ventilation, and air conditioning
  • Carpentry
  • Commercial driving

Seriously, technical college programs are so specialized that if you can think of a job title, there’s probably a program for it. And that’s why if you have a career in mind and you aren’t preoccupied with a desire to someday possess a bachelor’s degree or master’s degree, a technical college is a great option.

What is a college?

When a college isn’t labeled a community college, junior college, or technical college (or any variations of these categories), it should be a four-year institution.

Some of these schools may only offer bachelor’s degrees in either liberal arts or sciences. Not all colleges will offer graduate level degrees.

Generally speaking, colleges tend to be smaller than universities, but as Joliet Junior College’s 15,000+ students can affirm, there are always exceptions. You’ll find colleges that are bigger and more diversified than a lot of universities and universities that are smaller and less diversified than most colleges.

Want to hear a weird story that demonstrates how meaningless the difference is?

Why is one of the Ivy League schools called a college?

Dartmouth College was founded as a private college in 1769, making it the ninth oldest institution of higher education in the United States. And in the early 1800s, New Hampshire’s state legislature tried to force this private college to become a public university.

I know that doesn’t sound very interesting, but get this: the board of trustees voted out their president, so he tried to use his buddies in government to hijack the school back. Instead of creating a new school, they modified the existing charter and added a bunch of new trustees who wouldn’t vote out the president.

The result of this debacle? Dartmouth University took over the buildings of Dartmouth College, and so Dartmouth College rented some buildings near campus and existed as a shadow school.

Dartmouth University hid the school charter in a farmhouse. The academic societies at Dartmouth College refused to give up their libraries, so a handful of professors from Dartmouth University riled up some townsfolk and came to take the books back in the middle of the night. They started breaking down doors with axes, which was not in any way sneaky. The students woke up and fought them off with firewood.

I swear I’m not making this up.

And then the trustees of Dartmouth College won in the supreme court and moved back in, and Dartmouth University disappeared forever. So did the professors go back to work and say they were sorry? I don’t know. Probably not. Jerks.

All this to say, Dartmouth College is prestigious Ivy League school that offers some of the highest quality graduate-level education in the country, but they really like being called a college.

What is a university?

“Universities offer bachelor’s, master’s, and doctorate degrees, and sometimes have professional schools such as a law school or medical school. Universities tend to be larger than colleges, may have larger class sizes, and often focus on scholarly or scientific research.”

But that’s just what the government says. John Wesley University has less than 400 students. And that university is more than 100 years old! To be fair though, it was called John Wesley College for 50 years, and it was called a plain old school before that.

The point is, size, degree programs, and other distinctions people make between colleges and universities aren’t always true. You could maybe call those differences guidelines, but it might be more appropriate to call them suggestions.

And now that you have the different types of schools all sorted out, here’s a curveball.

What is a collegiate university?

Collegiate universities are essentially a collection of colleges that share a campus and an administration. This nebulous classification traces its origins back to the twelfth century and is most popular in western Europe, but there are about thirty collegiate universities in the U.S., including several Ivy League schools.

Traditionally, collegiate universities are either residential, meaning the students live at the college within the university, or non-residential, where the colleges play a primarily academic role.

As you compare various degree programs, you’re bound to find universities that offer a particular program through a specific college. These colleges are often named after an influential person who was affiliated with the college. When you see these, it doesn’t mean the university has outsourced the program, it just means it’s a collegiate university. Other universities generally offer programs through a particular department or “school.” It really doesn’t matter much, but some schools or colleges within a university may have a reputation that transcends the university itself, and that’s worth researching if you’re interested in a program they offer.

Should I go to a college or a university?

This probably isn’t the question you should be asking yourself right now. And it’s not one that you should let someone answer for you. The real question is: what do you want to do with your life? Your answer will help you find the right school for you, which could be a college, a university, or something else entirely.

If you have a really specific job that you’d like to do, it’s definitely worth looking into community colleges, technical colleges, or trade schools near you. They may have exactly what you need to get into a highly specialized role in less than two years, and for less than a fortune.

If you have a particular field in mind or a subject you’re really interested in, a four-year college or university is probably the better way to go. With a little research, you can find the best schools in your desired field. Compare them to find what works best with your budget and goals.

If you’re not sure what you want to do yet, but you really want to continue your education, there are two main schools of thought on being an “undeclared major” at a four-year college or university. The first is: don’t. Starting school without a degree in mind can really mess you up. You could wind up spending extra years of your life and thousands of dollars for a degree you could have planned for.

But starting school without deciding on a major doesn’t always mean you’re wasting your time or money. Since most schools require about two years worth of general requirements, you’d have to take classes in a wide variety of subjects anyways. This can be a great time to discover what you want to major in.

The main disadvantage is that if you know what you want to do ahead of time, you can sometimes kill two birds with one class and find courses that count as both general requirements and part of your major.

If you’re determined to dive into academia without a plan, you may want to consider starting at a community college or junior college. You’ll still be able to explore a variety of subjects and get your general requirements out of the way, and it’ll cost a lot less money.

Something else to consider: do you have enough money or financial aid options to afford four plus years of postsecondary education? If not, you need to be really careful that you’re going to land a career to make it worth it.

And finally, if you weren’t a good student in high school, you probably can’t expect that to suddenly change by virtue of being at college, where there’s less structure and external factors pushing you to stay on top of school. Of course, people can change. You know yourself best. But my advice: choose a program with a smaller time commitment, where the stakes are lower if you can’t finish.

The decision is up to you. Good luck!

Ryan Nelson
Ryan has a B.A. in English Literature from Western Washington University. If he could rewind and go to college all over again, he'd do it a little differently. For now, he's living vicariously through people like you by helping you find the best online schools for your field.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *