What is the Difference Between a College and a University?

University vs. CollegeIf you are thinking about enrolling in higher education, you may be asking yourself what the difference is between a college and a university. Colloquially, people tend to use the words “college” and “university” interchangeably when they talk about earning a degree. However, there are many difference options for post-secondary degrees across the United States, and it can often be confusing for those who are not very familiar with the system. By learning about the differences between colleges and universities, you can decide for yourself as to where you want to study.


The term “college” covers a number of different post-secondary institutions. This could refer to technical schools, vocational schools or two-year community colleges that offer associate’s degrees. However, some private institutions that offer bachelor’s degree programs are referred to as colleges. A good example is Macalester College, which is a liberal arts school in Minnesota. These colleges are held to the same standards as universities, and some are incredibly prestigious.

A college may be accredited by a regional or national association. For example, many community colleges and two-year institutions in the western part of the United States are accredited by the Accrediting Commission for Schools
Western Association of Schools and Colleges
. These commissions and accrediting bodies are designed to ensure that community colleges and two-year schools provide quality educational programs to their students.


Universities tend to be four-year institutions that also offer graduate degree programs. It is characterized by a group of different schools and departments that provide instruction to at least a bachelor’s degree level. They will usually be accredited by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation, an institution which oversees guidelines for academic quality within universities. They will also have a larger student population than colleges thanks to the number of degree programs offered.

Colleges within Universities

Many universities have separate colleges that are dedicated to different academic pursuits. Students may enroll in the College of Engineering, the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences or the College of Mathematics. Different schools will have different colleges depending on the subject matter. This usually option provides students with a department that has good funding, high quality teaching staff and a large amount of academic support.

Related Resource: Difference between Bachelor of Science and Bachelor of Arts

College or University – What’s the Best Choice?

All institutions of higher education are different. However, a college is not necessarily “lesser” than a university, nor will it offer substandard education, simply because it is designated as a college. Similarly, a university may not offer the degree programs that you are looking for, but that does not make it less academically rigorous than a college. If attending a two-year college is a better fit for your educational goals, then it doesn’t necessarily make sense to apply to a four-year school. You may appreciate the flexibility that a community college provides. If you want to enter into a professional field that requires intense study, such as medicine or law, then a university may be a better option for you. It really all comes down to what you want for your future. What is the difference between a college and a university, but the choices that you make for yourself?