The Difference between Colleges and Universities

Written By Maryam DiMauro

To international students and families, the American use of the words “college” and “university” can cause confusion. Usually, Americans use the word "college" in a general way to talk about both colleges and universities. “Going to college” simply means attending any college or university in the United States.  Both colleges and universities can be either privately owned or public (operated and funded by state governments).

Both colleges and universities offer the same types of bachelor's degrees in many different fields. Both offer the same basic kinds of classes and have the same basic graduation requirements. Admission requirements for colleges and universities are the same, depending on the particular school, and both colleges and universities can be very selective and competitive. In fact, highly ranked colleges are often more selective and have better reputations than many universities.

The quality of both colleges and universities depends on many factors, including selectivity, faculty-student ratios, the professors, facilities, and career services, among others.  

Also, it is typical that the quality and selectivity varies depending on the program of study you are applying to. One college or university may have an excellent engineering program but a lower ranked journalism program, or the reverse.  

So, are there any differences between colleges and universities?

Yes.

Degrees Offered

Colleges offer bachelor’s degrees (4-year degrees) and sometimes also Master’s degrees (another 1 to 3 years of study after the Bachelor’s degree), but they do not offer doctorates (PhDs).  Many colleges also offer special programs where students can earn a Bachelor's degree (4-year degree) and a Master's degree in 5 years instead of the usual 6.  

Universities offer bachelor's degrees, master’s, and doctoral degrees. (Master’s and doctorates require completion of the bachelor’s degree first.)   Universities also tend to be larger than colleges, but there are exceptions.  Some large universities have divisions for different programs, which are named “The College of Humanities”, the “College of Engineering”, or the “School of Design.”  

 

​ Size & Community

Colleges tend to be smaller with smaller class sizes and a stronger sense of community and individual student support. Some students choose colleges for this reason; they want to really get to know most of their classmates and professors and interact with people they know on campus every day. They do not want to feel lost in a crowd, which can happen in a larger university.

In universities, introductory level classes for freshmen and sophomores can be very large, and students may have little or no personal interaction with the instructor. However, usually, higher level courses are smaller. As for the community, large universities have so many students and such a variety of people and majors of study, that students may meet a greater diversity of people and can surely find someone on campus with similar interests. International students at large universities may be surrounded by other students from their home country, and so if they really want to have an American university experience, they may need to make more of an effort to meet people outside of their home culture.

 

​ Study Opportunities

Smaller colleges often have very specialized courses and programs of study, and quite often the highest ranked programs in a particular field are found in smaller colleges. Many students choose smaller colleges because of a particular program of study and opportunities to work closely with professors on research and special projects when they are still undergraduate students. Many also see small colleges as the best place to build a strong foundation and stand out in their undergraduate (Bachelor’s degree) studies, thinking ahead of their application to graduate programs.

Large universities usually offer more variety in programs of study – even hundreds of different kinds of degrees. This can also mean a wider variety of elective courses you can choose from to explore your interests. During your time there, you may discover a new field and specialization that you weren’t even aware of and decide to change your focus. Universities may also offer required courses more frequently and more courses during the summer semester, which can help students graduate on time in four years.  

 

​  Teachers

At smaller colleges, the professors themselves teach all the courses, and because of the smaller number of students in each class, students usually receive more personal attention from them.  

Something many international students do not realize is that in large universities, many of the lower level classes are taught by graduate students, not professors. Why is this? At large universities, professors’ time and attention are divided between research and teaching. Professors typically focus more of their time on research, publications, and teaching graduate courses, and their assistants, who are graduate students (Master's and PhD students), teach their undergraduate classes. Graduate students can be great teachers, sometimes even better at explaining new concepts and teaching than the expert professors, but it is a difference to be aware of.

 

​  Libraries and Facilities

Many colleges have excellent facilities in terms of classrooms, dormitories, food, theaters, art studios, gymnasiums, etc., and they may have specialized laboratories and facilities for their top programs.

Universities generally more of all of those and, significantly, much larger, more up-to-date, and better stocked libraries and research facilities. If you are the kind of student who loves research, be sure to look at the libraries and laboratories at the schools you are considering.

Neither colleges nor universities are better, but they are different, and one or the other might be better for you. Only you can decide what factors are most important to you when choosing a school for your Bachelor’s level studies. It’s a good idea to research and visit a variety of schools before you make your decision.

 

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