Difference between college and university

Difference between college and university | Which is better & why

Last Updated on January 3, 2021 by iSchoolConnect

As you prepare to apply abroad, you will notice that there’s a lot of difference between the terms ‘college’ and ‘university’ depending on which country you’re applying to. Allow me to sort out your confusion.

While students in the US use the words ‘college’ and ‘university’ interchangeably, institutes in countries like the UK, Canada, and Australia have very strict definitions for these words. And it’s important to know what these terms mean before you start shortlisting colleges and universities abroad for your application. Only then will you be able to figure out what institutions will be the best fit for you. To help you get there, I have listed out the difference between ‘college’ and ‘university,’ and also shared some important pros and cons that will help you decide what to choose. Let’s dive in!

What is a university?

A university is an institution that offers both undergraduate and postgraduate degrees. Sometimes, universities also allow students to take up a joint degree, through which they can pursue a master’s or a Ph.D. after graduation.

The basic difference is that universities have a more diverse offering of classes and programs as compared to colleges. As a result, the student population at a university is also higher. But that’s not always the case. For example, take Marymount California University, which had a total enrollment of 985 students in Fall 2016.

And more often than not, universities are actually made up of smaller divisions (or faculties) called colleges. This is usually the case in most US universities and all the institutions in the UK.

Pros and cons of studying at a university

Chemical laboratory scene: attractive young PhD student scientist observing the blue indicator color shift in the glass tube.
Lots of research opportunities and facilities are available to students at universities

Pros

  • There is more access to advanced degrees and more interaction with graduate students
  • Professors are more likely to be highly reputable figures in their fields of research
  • Lots of research opportunities and facilities are available to students
  • There are more program offerings overall and a more diverse community of students

 Cons

  • Universities may offer less personalized attention from professors and advisors
  • Students have to compete with graduates for research opportunities
  • The total costs of attending a four-year university are steep
  • It’s difficult for students to register for a course before it fills up

What is a college?

More often than not, a college is an institution that focuses more on undergraduate education. However, there are quite a few exceptions you will see. For example, some colleges, known as liberal arts colleges, don’t just focus on subjects like arts and humanities, but also teach courses in science, business, law, and education. Like The College of William and Mary, Dartmouth College, and St. Joseph’s College.

Then, there are community colleges, where students can begin their education early before transferring to a four-year college or university for completing their degree.

The usual trend for colleges is this – they tend to focus on specific fields and don’t necessarily provide broad offerings. And that means that they usually have small class sizes.

Pros and cons of studying at a college

Sideview students prepearing for exams in university.
Most colleges have a closer, more unified student community

Pros

  • You will likely get more personalized attention from professors and academic advisors
  • There is often a greater focus on undergraduate teaching
  • Colleges often have more curriculum specialization for students with specific interests
  • Most colleges have a closer, more unified student community
  • At community colleges, tuition costs a fraction of a four-year university, making them much more affordable options.
  • Students at two-year colleges have more time to consider degree options as they complete their general education requirements

Cons

  • There are usually fewer resources and facilities for conducting research
  • Faculty at colleges are less likely to be leading researchers in their fields
  • Colleges don’t offer direct access to more advanced degrees
  • Most colleges will have fewer overall program offerings
  • Small community colleges often struggle with a lack of diversity and issues related to student engagement in the classroom.
  • Small, private liberal arts colleges that offer bachelor’s degrees tend to offer less financial aid

Do they mean different things in different countries?

Yes. The definitions I have given above are usually true for institutions in the US. But when it comes to other study abroad destinations, the difference between college and university changes-

UK

In the United Kingdom, colleges are schools found with a university and they do not award degrees.

Canada

In Canada, the term college will usually refer to vocational, artistic, technical & scientific third level of education. Consequently, a college is not recognized as being completely independent the same way as a university.

Australia

Here, ‘college’ means secondary education. The term is not commonly used for specific vocational schools or schools inside a university.

So, which one should I choose?

Now that the difference between college and university is clear, there are a few factors that you can consider while shortlisting institutions.These include-

  1. Program availability
  2. Profile requirements
  3. Course fee
  4. Curriculum
  5. Faculty
  6. Research opportunities, and 
  7. Job opportunities

Once you’ve figured out which institutes you like fulfill all your requirements, you can create your shortlist, categories the universities and colleges into Dream, Reach, and Safe categories, and start applying!

And in case you get stuck or need any help, feel free to drop a comment or reach out.

We’d be very happy to help!

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