College vs University: What’s the Difference?

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By Azara Lantra
Last updated on August 7, 2023

College vs. university? In America, the words “college” and “university” are often used interchangeably. Here is how to tell the difference.

A male and female student with backpacks and carrying notebooks and walking while having an animated discussion.

What is the difference between a college and a university? 

As an international student planning to study in the US, you may come across the terms “university” and “college” as you research the places where you can get a higher education degree. Many people in the US often use the terms “college” and “university” interchangeably, but there are some differences–and understanding these differences is important when deciding where to apply and what works best for you. 

So, what does college mean? What exactly is a university? Read on to find out!

What Is a College?

Compared to universities in the USA, colleges tend to be smaller institutions of higher education that focus on undergraduate education (e.g., four-year bachelor’s degree programs). Often, colleges offer liberal arts programs with broad areas of study in subjects like the humanities, science, and creative arts. Liberal arts colleges help students receive a comprehensive education, instead of specializing in one subject right from the start. 

Typically, colleges in the USA do not offer a wide range of graduate programs (e.g., master’s degrees or doctorates) and may not have as many research opportunities as US universities. However, there are always exceptions, and in your research you may find some colleges that do include graduate programs.

Some US colleges, like community colleges, offer two-year associate degree programs. After getting an associate’s degree, students may choose to transfer to a four-year college or university to finish their bachelor’s degree. 

What Is a University?

A university offers both undergraduate and graduate degree programs. (This is one main difference between a college and a university.) Since universities are generally larger than colleges, they offer more variety in their degree programs and focus heavily on producing research. At a university, for example, you can study for a master’s degree or a PhD, whereas not every college will have these graduate degree programs.

One thing that can be confusing for international students is that universities are often made up of several institutions that are referred to as colleges or schools. This means that each college or school focuses on a different area of study. For example, Adelphi University has a College of Arts and Sciences, and University of Utah has a College of Engineering.

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College vs. University – Which Term Do US Students Use?

As an international student, you may expect the word “college” to mean something different from how it is used to study in America. So, it can be confusing when students in the US refer to higher education institutions as “college,” even if they are attending a university. For example, in everyday use, they could say, “I’m heading off to college” instead of “I’m heading off to university.”

Understanding cultural definitions like this can be difficult and a new experience altogether. But there is nothing to worry about. Most Americans are not completely aware of the difference between college and university, either! The more time you spend in the US, the more familiar things will become. For cultural questions like this, remember that Shorelight advisors are always there to help.

Should You Choose a College or a University?

College vs. university? Many international students tend to ask whether attending a university is a better choice than going to a college. In truth, both can be great options, and the answer comes down to what your needs and career goals are. 

Here are three things to keep in mind when choosing between a college and university:

1. Class Size

Depending on your learning style, class size is an important factor when deciding between a college and a university. 

Generally, universities have larger classes, while colleges tend to have smaller classes. Large classes can be overwhelming for some students, especially when you have to ask questions. With smaller classes, you have more opportunities to engage with the professor for a more personal learning experience.

2. Career Opportunities

If your goal is to earn your master’s degree or get a PhD, you may find more options from universities in the USA. As universities have a greater focus on research, they could have more facilities and opportunities available for you. On the other hand, if you are interested in learning about a particular field of study for an undergraduate program, a college could suit you just fine. 

Regardless of what you decide for your study in America, keep in mind that both colleges and universities open up many of the same pathways for international students.

3. Student Life

As an international student, your life on campus will play an important role in defining and shaping your future. In this case, both colleges and universities provide many opportunities and activities for their students to actively engage in and enjoy the experience of studying in the US. Depending on how you would like to experience life on campus, you can choose to play a sport, join volunteer groups, or attend events happening around campus.

Before deciding where to study, it is important to look into the specific college or university’s campus activities and programs to see whether it fits what you are looking for.

Pros and Cons of Colleges and Universities 

Universities and colleges in the US have unique features and offerings that provide a well-rounded education. Recognizing and comparing aspects that may suit your academic and career goals can assist in your decision to choose the right school. 

Pros of Colleges 

Personalized Learning Experience

Colleges in the US tend to have smaller class sizes that can provide a personalized learning experience. Smaller classes can create a comfortable environment where you’ll get to know your professors and peers. Discussing academic material, requesting assistance with navigating to the US education system, and leveraging opportunities to build professional relationships can be easier in a smaller classroom environment.

A Focus on Undergraduate Teaching

Many colleges are dedicated to creating an excellent undergraduate student learning experience – often through championing different teaching methods. Colleges focus more on teaching as opposed to research (whereas universities often emphasize producing research). If you are looking for an education that provides personalized guidance and direction to pursue your undergraduate degree, a college may be a good choice for you. 

Cons of Colleges 

Lack of Diversity and Resources

Compared to large universities, some colleges may not offer the same diverse student community, especially in rural areas. A smaller environment may also mean limited access to resources and laboratories, especially if your field of study is research based. 

Limited Curriculum

Certain colleges, such as community colleges, offer two-year associate degrees, which only cover basic curriculum. If students wish to obtain a bachelor’s degree, they typically have to transfer to a university to complete their education. But even if you do attend a college that offers bachelor’s degrees, you may not find longer-term study options, as not every college will offer masters or PhD degree programs. If your goal is to pursue postgraduate education after your bachelor’s degree, a university may be a better option.

Pros of Universities 

Broad Array of Programs and Areas of Study

Compared to colleges, universities have a broad range of programs for students to choose from. They also provide qualifications for medicine, law, and various other professional subjects that some colleges may not be able to offer. 

Diverse Campus and Culture

Universities, especially public and/or city-based universities, are often considerably diverse since they actively recruit students from around the world. Attending a university may allow you to interact with peers and faculty from a variety of backgrounds and identities. Universities often provide an abundance of networking opportunities and may connect you with potential employers. 

Cons of Universities 

Less Personalized Attention

While universities can cater to a larger volume of students, some students may feel a little lost, like “just a face in the crowd.” Since professors usually teach students in large classes, their teaching methods may not be as personalized as those of faculty at a college — though this can differ between institutions.  

More People = More Planning Required

Universities accommodate a large student population, so registering for programs and classes can be more competitive at a university compared to a college. (If you are unable to sign up for your top-choice classes in time, do not worry! There are many alternative routes your advisor can guide you through so you can stay on track and achieve your goals.)

College vs. university, whichever you choose, depends on your career development program and future plans. Remember, there is no right or wrong choice. Understanding what your interests are, along with which skills you’d like to develop, will allow you to see which schools align best with your goals – and then make the best possible decision as to where to enroll.

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Explore Shorelight Universities 

Choosing a university or college can be a challenging experience. Shorelight advisors can guide you through the process of identifying which schools suit your needs, from building your career development program, matching you to institutions that offer your most-desired qualifications, assisting with the application process, and more support services.

If you want to discuss any clarifications on what’s the difference between college and university, how to improve your English-language skills before arriving on campus, or guidance with the student visa process, a Shorelight counselor is always available to help you.

Researching universities and colleges in the USA can be a daunting process. But now that you know the difference between a college and university, you can make better decisions when picking which option will work best for you and set you up for success.

Talk to an advisor today to learn how Shorelight student services can help you research the best college or university for your goals >