It might not seem like there are any sharp differences between educational institutions beyond high school. But before you decide the type of school you want to attend to advance your career prospects, you may want to learn more here about how colleges and universities differ.

What’s the Difference Between College and University?

After graduating high school, many students will want to decide to attend a college or university. Depending on one’s subject of interest, what type of degree they are seeking to pursue, and learning style, you’ll want to know the difference between a college and university.

Although some people may use the words college and university interchangeably, they share some similarities but are markedly different.

Both colleges and universities can be public and private. State funds support public institutions of higher learning, and private institutions have vested donors and boards.

Before a student chooses the type of institution they would like to attend, they need to consider the following.

  • Tuition Cost
  • Size of student body and classrooms
  • Reputation of institution
  • The type of degrees and certifications available

Since colleges are smaller than universities, usually students are only able to earn a 2-year or 4-year degree.

Universities typically encompass multiple schools that offer varying professional degrees so that students can earn a graduate or undergraduate degree at a university.

Universities are larger and have more students enrolled, so the opportunity to offer an array of more diverse courses and degrees is possible. Plus, universities often are awarded esteemed reputations for conducted research.

Community Colleges

If a student doesn’t want to attend school for more than a year or two, a community college may be the best option. Community colleges may have a reputation for being more accessible to get into, and do not have the rigorous entrance exams of universities, but they are practical solutions for some students.

Community colleges typically have the following characteristics:

  • Students can earn a certificate or 2-year degree
  • Community colleges are usually more affordable than public or private colleges and universities
  • The Community colleges do not have strict requirements for entrance and offer smaller class sizes

Community colleges or junior colleges are similar to larger colleges and universities in that they accept student aid, scholarships, and grants to offset the cost of tuition and books. However, unlike larger colleges, the class sizes are smaller, and there may be more non-traditional students.

Junior colleges are usually more inexpensive to attend but require students to commute, or may even offer online classes.

Non-traditional students may be well past their late teens and early 20s in age, have a current or former military, or workplace experience, and may have families. Community colleges offer greater flexibility with scheduling, so non-traditional students can still work on their education while maintaining their family and work life responsibilities.

Community colleges are also useful for students who don’t want to feel overwhelmed in a lecture hall and prefer to learn in a smaller setting with more personal attention. The pace and difficulty of coursework given at a community college are not as strenuous or challenging as attending a 4-year university or college.

Junior colleges are a good way for students unsure of attending an expensive, and larger institution to get acclimated to collegiate-level coursework. If a student completes coursework at a community college with a 2-year degree or Associate’s degree, they can transfer their degree or credits to a 4-year college or university.

Difference Between College and University – 4-Year Colleges

Usually, state-funded public colleges or private colleges have a reasonably sizable student base, but not as large as a university’s body.

When one thinks of a college, similar to a university, most undergraduate students live in some form of student housing via dorms, suites, or apartments. Not all public colleges offer student housing or meal plans. Some colleges require that students commute as needed to attend classes, or provide online courses.

Standard colleges usually offer Bachelor’s degrees in Art and Sciences and may also be referred to as Liberal Arts Colleges. However, just because a college is labeled a Liberal Arts school, does not mean that students cannot earn a degree in a subject like business, communications, or a foreign language.

If a student wants to earn a degree beyond a Bachelor’s degree, they are going to want to attend a university.

Universities Have An Air of Loftiness

Reputations do matter, and one common thought of a university conjures up a vision of manicured grounds surrounded majestic buildings, and erudite professors and students alike, engaging in rousing discourse and debates.

Usually, universities are awarded accolades for being a research university, which often takes around 20 years to earn.

Many universities have excellent research libraries replete with rare books, research journals, papers, and professional publications that cover the latest findings in various fields of interest. Universities also seek to find the top-professionals in their area of study and offer tenure to professors.

If a student is interested in getting the most elite education available, they may seek out attending an Ivy League university, or any university that has vetted staff with notable work and life experience on the subject that they teach.

Universities don’t only offer a Bachelor’s degree, but students can also attend a university to earn a Master’s degree or Ph.D. Universities are made up of various schools, so there may be a school for liberal arts, medicine, law, and business all in one.

Students may take pre-requisite course material before applying for admission into a more specified educational track so that they can work toward a degree in business, law, or whatever desired subject.

Universities are capable of bestowing honorary degrees to deserving individuals, usually have accomplished and esteemed alumnus, and are expensive to attend. Public universities are a bit more affordable than private universities, but sometimes the price tag you pay gives you the entrance into certain social and political circles of influence.

Difference Between College and University – Entrance Into a College or University

Not all institutions have the same entrance requirements, so students should prepare themselves before attempting to attend a school. Universities are usually the hardest to get into because of the sheer amount of competition among potential students. Plus, students should consider the non-refundable application fee amount before making a committed decision.

At a university, students are expected to display high marks on standardized testing such as the ACT or SAT, have command of written language with some level of sophistication, pass an in-person interview, and be able to expound on ideas with ease.

Prospective students of a university are usually expected to have committed to past or current volunteer service, engage in extra-curricular activities, and have taken past course material that prepares them for their chosen degree track. When seeking to earn a Master’s or Ph.D., students are expected to demonstrate evident proven aptitude within their field, and applicable experience.

Again, public colleges and universities are a bit more lenient with student admittance and requirements, depending on the student’s chosen field of study.

Difference Between College and University – Tailoring Your Dream Educational Experience

Learning the difference between a college and university is essential when planning and managing your resources for education, career, and life.

Colleges and universities are not for everyone. Some people may find it better to attend a community college instead of a larger 4-year university or to attend a technical college that focuses on a degree or certification in various specific fields. An example of a technical college would be a school that only graduates students educated in car mechanics, computer technology, or culinary arts.

When it comes to attending a college or university, they do not offer the same level of quality of coursework, and the costs attached to tuition and fees vary significantly.

Students who don’t want to commute long distances to classes, or do not want to live on campus, or are unable to do so may want to attend a community college. Community colleges offer a modest amount of diverse coursework, is more inexpensive to attend, and doesn’t necessarily require all students to be full-time.

Community college attendees may be non-traditional, fresh out of high school, or are looking to earn certification from taking vocational courses, or adult education courses which do not lead to earning a degree. Most community colleges do offer some form of extra-curricular activities and clubs to cement the community of students and staff.

Public and private 4-year colleges and universities both offer a more typical collegiate experience. It is more common for students who attend a college or university to experience sorority or fraternity life, live on campus, and attend regular social functions on or around the campus, than students who attend a junior college.

If a student feels confident incurring the cost to attend a 4-year university to earn a Bachelor’s degree, then it is better to skip past attending a community college.

If cost is a significant factor or family and work responsibilities make taking a class more difficult, attending a community college is more flexible and affordable. Many colleges and some universities do offer online courses for students of all types, who are interested in earning a 4-year degree or beyond.

Students who are looking for an educational experience that revolves around pedigree social circles, institution reputation, and status, desire more intense coursework and expect more from their professors’ experience and background may be better suited at a private university to earn a Bachelor’s degree, Master’s degree, or Ph.D.


Featured Image: CC0 Public Domain via Pixabay

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