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

When you start exploring your options for receiving an education, some of the terminology can be confusing. One thing people ask about the most is the difference between a college and university. Traditionally, the term “college” referred to a smaller institution that offered primarily two-year degrees. However, what’s confusing is that many four-year institutions still carry the “college” label in their names. For example, Excelsior College offers many bachelor’s degrees and even some graduate degrees. So, what exactly is the difference?

Colleges and universities

The main difference between the two is usually size. Colleges are typically smaller than universities and offer fewer options. Their degrees are usually limited to two-year associate degrees, but they sometimes offer a few four-year options.

A university, on the other hand, is larger than a college and offers undergraduate and graduate degrees in a broad range of areas. They may, however, be split into different colleges for different disciplines. You might attend the university’s college of art or the college of math and sciences. Or in some colleges, like Excelsior College, they might just be split into areas of study.

As confusing as it is, some institutions with the name “college” in their titles are actually universities. This is usually because they started many years ago as a college and just didn’t change their name to avoid re-branding. To add to this confusion, there are actually times when a small college can call itself a university. In 2012, new rules were passed governing the title. While a college was previously required to have at least 4,000 students enrolled, they can now have as little as 1,000. However, of those 1,000, 750 of them have to be degree-seeking.

How the terms are used in other countries

Different countries use the terms college and university the same way we do in the US, but there are some differences. In the US, some departments within a university are called schools. These schools have their own degrees that are awarded to students as a subdivision of the university. For example, a student might get a Bachelor of Arts from the College of Mathematics at Harvard University. In the UK, however, they might have various colleges that are not directly related to learning. Instead, they simply signify what a particular facility is used for, like a college of theater, where productions are put on but no degrees are awarded.

Canada uses the term “college” mostly for technical/vocational schools. They also have some institutions called university colleges that provide a tertiary education but are not fully independent the way universities are. In Australia, they use the term “college” almost exclusively for secondary education. You won’t hear the word “university” being thrown around much, except by those studying abroad.

Can colleges offer graduate degrees?

People often assume that colleges can’t offer master’s, or even bachelor’s degrees, for that matter. But that’s not the case. Excelsior College, for example, offers quite a few master’s programs despite carrying the term “college” in the name. There, you can get a Master of Business Administration, Master of Science in Nursing Education, and several other higher degrees. These programs are fully accredited by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education and are just as valid as any degree from a university.

How to choose

Choosing a college or university mostly depends on the type of degree you wish to pursue. But it may also depend on factors such as cost, location, and class size. Also, many students base their decision on whether or not they can attend classes online. Schools like Excelsior offer an entirely online experience that makes it easy for students to attend classes on their own schedule without neglecting other obligations. What’s important to keep in mind is that as long as the school is accredited and offers your program, you don’t have to get hung up on terminology. You can feel free to attend either a college or university with full confidence in your degree program.