College? University? What’s the Difference?
When discussing your post-secondary plans, do you say you are going to college or to university? Perhaps you use the words interchangeably. Does it matter? Is one better than the other? Throughout the world, the word “college” takes on a wide variety of meanings that equal anything but university. In the U.S. however, the difference between college and university seems to be very subtle, and we happily use both terms to indicate that we have graduated from high school and are heading into a four-year system of higher education that will, hopefully, result in a bachelor’s degree.
And that is where the similarities end. Whether you are heading off to the University of Florida or South Florida State College, you are guaranteed a bachelor’s degree providing you take the requisite courses and get the grades. If, however, you wish to add a post-grad degree to your collection, you will need to attend a genuine university. Colleges offer four year programs, but only universities offer master’s degree programs and doctorates.
There is a common assumption among those who differentiate between the two systems, that universities are academically superior. This is not necessarily true and should not be the basis for choosing your post-secondary path. For instance, we all know that Harvard is a highly reputable center of tertiary learning. But, when we speak of this famous institution, are we speaking about Harvard College or Harvard University? Harvard College – better known as Harvard’s College of Arts and Science – is actually a liberal arts college and is part of Harvard University, as are Harvard’s Business School, Harvard’s Medical School, etc. Collectively, all the colleges on this campus make up Harvard University, and all are excellent. In their article entitled “Americas Top Colleges”, Forbes Magazine lists Williams College and Pomona College among their top-ten, tucked right in there with high-ranking universities such as Princeton, Yale, Columbia, Cornell, and, of course, Harvard. When choosing where you want to study, do not allow yourself to be influenced by those who insist that universities reign supreme over colleges.
There are a few differences between colleges and universities that you may wish to consider when deciding where to apply to study. Generally speaking, colleges tend to be smaller than universities. If you prefer a quieter campus, you may want to think about studying at a college. Smaller colleges also result in smaller classes and allow for more personal attention rather than the anonymity that one often experiences on large university campuses. Another distinction is your major. Because universities are comprised of many different colleges – each one offering its own area of expertise – they offer a wide selection of subjects to pursue. They also offer post-graduate opportunities. This is particularly attractive to students with more esoteric interests. Colleges, on the other hand, usually have a smaller faculty and a more restricted course selection. Many colleges are liberal arts schools where the students choose a specific major, but also take classes in a variety of other subjects for a broad-based education. And also important to add, colleges may offer students to design their own degree. Being more liberal in nature, they are generally more open than universities to providing the opportunity for students to design their curricula and declare a major that was not previously offered (of course, always following a systematic approach to successfully develop that curricula).
Ultimately, for those pursuing a bachelor’s degree, we advise you to apply to a school that regardless of its title, offers a great fit with your interests, academic abilities, and financial wherewithal (bearing in mind that there are many financial aid opportunities available at colleges and universities). If you are applying to study abroad, there is a significant difference between colleges and universities, but in the U.S., they mainly serve the same purpose for undergraduate students.
1 Noer, Michael. America’s Top Colleges. Forbes.com (1/03/13)