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Are There Any Differences Between a College and a University?

Margaret Minnicks has been an online writer for many years. She writes articles that are interesting to her readers.


It is not unusual that many people in America use the terms "college" and "university" interchangeably. That shouldn't be the case because there are differences between a college and a university. People in other countries do not use the terms interchangeably. Sometimes people who graduate from a university get offended if people call their institution of higher learning a college.

I graduated from Virginia State College in Petersburg, Virginia in 1968. That is what's listed on my transcript. However, now I have to remember to refer to my alma mater as Virginia State University. Why was the name of the school of higher learning changed?

General Terms

In the United States, the word "college" is the general term for education after high school. Therefore, the word is the generic term for any post-secondary undergraduate education, whether the name of the school has "college" or "university" in its name.

If a school of higher learning does not have the academic programs of studies that a person wants, it is unlikely that he would choose one just for its name. American students "go to college" after they graduate from high school. In the United States, there are over 7,021 colleges and universities available for higher learning.

Size of the School

The main difference between a college and a university in the United States is the size of the school and the programs it offers. Colleges don't usually offer as many or the same programs as universities.

Universities offer undergraduate programs as well as some graduate programs. Think of a university as having smaller schools under its umbrella. For example, there could be an entire school of journalism, a school of engineering, a school of fashion and design, or a school of agriculture located in a university but not in a college.


History and Tradition of the School

Boston College, Dartmouth College, and the College of William and Mary meet the requirements of having smaller schools because they offer a number of graduate degree programs, but they are not considered universities. Why not?

They are not considered universities by choice based on their history. All three are longtime schools of higher learning in the United States. Boston College was founded in 1863, Dartmouth College was established in 1769, and the College of William and Mary was founded in 1693. Those three schools prefer the word "college" in their titles because of tradition. Older institutions were initially referred to as "colleges" and they want to keep that title. The word "college" gives the impression of a much smaller and intimate school.

According to Geography

In the United States, when students graduate from high school, family members, friends and classmates may ask, "Are you going to college?" Graduating high school seniors may even say, "Yes, I am going to college" even if they have been accepted to a university. More than likely, they will not say, "Yes, I am going to a university."

Outside of the United States, such as the United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia, graduating students say they're going to university even if they are going to a college.

To make it even more confusing, in some parts of the world "college" is considered a secondary school rather than an institution of higher education. People in Africa, Australia, South Asia, New England, and a large portion of Europe think that way. For example, Eton College that was founded in 1440 is a popular British boarding school that educates boys aged 13-18. Princes William and Harry, Boris Johnson, Bear Grylls, and some Prime Ministers graduated from Eton College.

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Is One School of Higher Education Better Than the Other?

Some people think a university is more prestigious than a college. However, that is not the case in every instance.

Some colleges may have a stronger reputation and be more specialized in some programs than some universities. Even though most colleges are smaller than larger universities, sometimes it is more difficult to enroll in them.

Universities may have more extensive graduate programs and more diverse classes than the average college. Therefore, a student should not depend on a school by what's in its title if it has the program of study that he wants to specialize in.

Virginia State College became Virginia State University in 1979.

Virginia State College became Virginia State University in 1979.

5. A College Can Become a University

As I stated above, my college became a university. A college can become a university when it fulfills a number of requirements and maintains them for at least five years.

In order for a college to become a university, it much have a graduate studies program that covers at least three academic fields. Those programs must be separate from the undergraduate programs that cover a wide range of subjects.

A college should have wide resources to operate under the name of a university. It must have donors to support the school financially. Finally, a college must be accredited and may be licensed. That depends on the state where the school is located.

Virginia State College became a university in 1979 after it met all the requirements to become one. That's why it is no longer Virginia State College. It is Virginia State University.

More recently, Thomas Edison State College in Trenton, New Jersey became Thomas Edison State University in 2015 after the school expanded its graduate programs.


The Bottom Line

In the United States, schools with "college" in their name are smaller institutions that offer ONLY undergraduate degrees.

In America, schools with "university" in their name are institutions of higher education that offer degrees in both undergraduate and postgraduate programs of study. In order for it to be called a university, the school MUST offer graduate degrees.


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

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