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The Ivy Coach Daily

May 25, 2023

What Is the Difference Between a College and a University?

Three people stands on the steps in front of Harvard University's Widener Library.
Harvard goes by both Harvard College and Harvard University (photo credit: Caroline Culler).

The words college and university are often used interchangeably in the United States. Outside of the U.S., many international applicants don’t even consider applying to schools named colleges because they fail to realize that colleges are often synonymous with universities. But is college a perfect synonym for university, or do the words hold different meanings in different contexts? It’s a question we’re often asked at Ivy Coach. So let’s dive in!

What is a College?

A college is an educational institution devoted to teaching students in the liberal arts. While some colleges, typically smaller than universities, offer both undergraduate and graduate programs, their focus is primarily on the undergraduate experience.

What is a University?

A university is an educational institution devoted to teaching undergraduates and graduate students in the liberal arts and various trades. Universities, typically larger than colleges, offer undergraduate and graduate programs.

Colleges Are Often Perceived as Smaller than Universities

Many parents and students intrinsically feel that schools named universities are larger than schools called colleges — and that gut feeling isn’t necessarily wrong. Many schools with the word university (e.g., University of Michigan, University of California) are larger than schools with the word college (e.g., Dartmouth College, Williams College) in their names.

But there are also schools with college in their names that are larger than schools dubbed universities. For example, Boston College has nearly 15,000 students, including undergraduate and graduate students, while Brown University has fewer than 11,000 total students. So it’s not always true that schools that go by universities are larger than schools that like to call themselves colleges.

Colleges Are Often Perceived as Lacking Graduate Studies

But the difference in perception between schools that go by universities and schools that go by colleges is not merely a factor of size. Universities are often perceived as offering graduate studies, while colleges offer only undergraduate studies. Yet this perception, too, can be misleading since many schools named colleges offer graduate programs.

After all, Dartmouth College boasts the Geisel School of Medicine, the Thayer School of Engineering, the Tuck School of Business, and the Guarini School of Graduate and Advanced Studies. Boston College offers master’s, doctoral, and professional degrees in more than 90 disciplines. And the list goes on!

Colleges Are Often Perceived As Lacking Research Opportunities

Another difference parents and students perceive when thinking about colleges vs. universities is that schools named colleges lack research opportunities. But that’s false. While some universities offer more research opportunities than some colleges, some colleges offer more research opportunities — and better research opportunities — than some universities.

Colleges Tend to Focus on the Undergraduate Experience

So the difference between schools that go by universities versus those that go by colleges is more than just a function of size or whether or not they offer graduate studies. At its core, the difference between schools that go by universities versus those that go by colleges is a focus on the undergraduate experience.

While schools that go by college tend to be smaller and offer fewer graduate programs, as we’ve demonstrated, it’s not always the case. What is always the case is that schools that go by college in their names proudly focus on the undergraduate experience. Sure, they might offer numerous graduate programs, but the undergraduate experience is the most critical part of their mission.

Deciding Between a University vs. a College

In short, there’s some truth to the notion that universities are larger than colleges, offering more research opportunities and graduate programs. But this rule only sometimes holds true. Heck, there are some schools — like Harvard — that go by both Harvard College and Harvard University.

As Harvard writes, “Harvard College offers a four-year undergraduate, liberal arts program for students seeking their first degree. There are about 6,600 undergraduates at the College, with nearly equal numbers of men and women. In addition to Harvard College, Harvard University includes 10 graduate and professional schools, all of which offer programs for students who already hold their first degrees and seek advanced training in their fields through master’s or doctoral programs.”

So, when considering post-secondary school plans, don’t rule a school out because of the word college or university in its name since it might be confusing.

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