Steven Gist (USA)

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

by Steven Gist | April 18, 2012 | Steven Gist (USA) 0 Comments

Valparaiso University's library.

Valparaiso University's library.

In the U.S., we tend to use the word college to refer to higher education in general. For example, most people in the U.S. would say that someone is “at college” or “going to college” even if the student is studying at a university. This can be confusing for non-U.S. students and their families since the word ‘college’ can have very different meanings around the world.

But even when non-U.S. families understand that this is a generic term, they may still be unsure about the difference between a university and a college, and not fully understand the different types of colleges found in the U.S.

To gain a better understanding of these terms, let’s start with the definition of university. A university is an institution of higher education that is made up of multiple schools and colleges. If you visit Valparaiso University’s website (, for example, and click on “Academics”, you’ll see that there are five colleges, a law school and a graduate school that, together, form Valparaiso University. These colleges are both part of the university, as well as distinct and somewhat autonomous entities.

Another good example of the college/university distinction is Harvard University. If you apply to Harvard University as an undergraduate, you will actually apply to Harvard College, which houses most of the undergraduate, liberal arts departments and engineering programs. Harvard College is a part of Harvard University, which is also made up of Harvard Business School, Harvard Law School, Harvard Medical School, etc.

Now that we have a basic understanding of what a university is, let’s talk about colleges. A college is an institution of higher education comprised of different departments, but not multiple schools and colleges. Take Calvin College, as an example.  It is a college consisting of different departments offering primarily liberal arts degrees. If Calvin College ever decides to create a college of business or a school of engineering, it may very well change its name to Calvin University.

Another way in which the term college is used in the U.S. is in reference to community colleges or junior colleges. These are institutions of higher education that focus on vocational and professional programs, as well as two-year academic programs that allow students to transfer to a four-year college or university to complete a bachelor’s degree.

The table below should help in understanding the different types of colleges in the U.S.

Liberal Arts College An institution in which more than 50% of conferred degrees are liberal arts degrees (i.e. history, sociology, psychology, science, etc.)
College (four-year college) An institution in which less than 50% of conferred degrees are liberal arts degrees
Community College or Junior College (two-year colleges) An institution that provides vocational and professional programs to meet the needs of the local labor force.  They may also offer academic programs leading to a two-year associates degree. It is possible for students from two-year colleges to matriculate into a bachelor’s degree program at a four-year college or university.

It is important to note that you will find a few exceptions in the use of the terms college and university.  There are “universities” that are actually colleges, and “colleges” that are universities.  Boston College, for example, is a university not a college (and it is not in Boston!).

One area in which the distinction between colleges and universities becomes important is in the U.S. News and World Report college ranking system.  For more information about this, I encourage you to read my post entitled “U.S. News and World Report College Rankings”.

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