College vs. University: How They Differ & How to Choose Between Them
By Crystal Lee
| Last Updated
The college vs. university issue can be very confusing. The terms are often used interchangeably, and many students would be hard pressed to explain the difference. But while "college" is often used as a blanket term for any form of higher education, the truth is that there are some key differences between colleges and universities, and even between the various types of colleges. It's essential that you understand the distinctions so you can make an informed choice.
All traditional four-year colleges and universities offer a broad-based education designed to give students a solid foundation of skills and knowledge. The training can be very theoretical; at many traditional schools, the focus is more on teaching you how to think than on teaching you specific job skills. Graduates receive degrees that can be used for a variety of positions and fields. Once they have their foot in the door, they can work their way into more advanced jobs.
So, what is the difference between college and university? As a general rule, universities offer both undergraduate and graduate programs, while colleges offer only undergraduate programs. There are exceptions to this rule, however. In deference to tradition, some institutions continue to call themselves "colleges" even though they offer graduate programs and could technically be called universities. (Dartmouth College, Boston College, and The College of William and Mary are just a few examples.)
In addition, there are many different types of colleges (such as career colleges, community colleges, and liberal arts colleges), each of which serves a different purpose. With all these options, it can be challenging to figure out what educational route is best for you. So if a specific aspect of this issue (such as community colleges vs. universities) has you confused, or if you're trying to navigate the entire spectrum of university vs. college options, take heart. The information in the following sections can help you.
- What is a university?
- What is a college?
- How to choose the best type of school for you
- 7 tips for transferring from a 2-year to a 4-year institution
- Types of programs that allow transfers
What Is a University?
Basically, a university is a degree-granting institution. The main difference between university and college is that a university offers graduate programs leading to master's or doctoral degrees. Universities are generally larger than colleges and offer a wider range of courses.
It gets confusing, however, because a university can be made up of multiple schools or colleges. For instance, Harvard College is the undergraduate liberal arts college of Harvard University. But Harvard University is made up of 10 other graduate and professional schools as well (e.g., Harvard Business School, Harvard Law School, Harvard Medical School, etc.).
Similarly, Purdue University is comprised of 10 colleges and schools, including the College of Engineering and the College of Veterinary Medicine. Each of those colleges offers both undergraduate and graduate degrees under the aegis of the university.
Public vs. private
Public universities are partly funded by state and local governments; every state has at least one public university. They offer lower tuition fees to in-state students than to students from out of state. This is done on the theory that in-state residents have supported the university through paying state taxes, while those from out of state have not.
Private universities do not receive government funding. They are financed through tuition fees, endowments, and private donations. Their fees tend to be higher than those of public universities, but many of them offer substantial financial aid to help defray costs.
Research universities vs. teaching universities
At any university, faculty time is divided between teaching and research. But the balance between those two tasks can vary widely between institutions.
Universities that emphasize research are usually large institutions (for example, Arizona State University has over 68,000 students) that offer an enormous variety of programs and majors at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. The focus on research means that many of these schools have state-of-the-art facilities (such as extensive libraries and cutting-edge equipment) and are staffed by faculty members who are distinguished experts in their field.
However, you may not have much access to those experts; in many cases, undergraduate classes are led by graduate teaching assistants rather than the professors themselves. And undergraduate classes are typically huge, with sometimes hundreds of students gathered in large lecture halls. That can make it difficult to have any meaningful interaction with course instructors.
Teaching universities, on the other hand, focus primarily on imparting knowledge rather than conducting research. Professors generally have full teaching loads—typically four classes per term—and do not face the same publish-or-perish pressure as instructors at research universities. Professors might still conduct research, but their main job is to teach. You might not find as many facilities at these types of institutions, but you may have more face time with your instructors.
What Is a College?
The word "college" can mean a lot of different things. Sometimes it refers to a degree-granting institution very similar to a university, but it can also refer to a school that offers short-term training focusing on career-specific skills. Here's a breakdown of the different types of colleges:
Also known as technical schools, trade schools, or vocational schools, career colleges provide job-oriented training that's designed to prepare you for direct entry into the workforce. Typically, they offer certificates, diplomas, and associate degrees that take two years or less to complete. However, some career colleges also offer bachelor's and master's degree programs that can take three to four years (or longer) to complete. And some of them brand themselves as universities even though they may not necessarily share all of the same features of a traditional university as described above.
Program offerings include a huge range of occupational areas like business, health care, design, information technology, culinary arts, dental hygiene, HVAC repair, aviation maintenance, and cosmetology. The full list of career college program areas may be a lot bigger than you realize.
Sometimes called junior colleges, community colleges usually offer associate degrees, though some also offer certificate programs. Programs are typically two years long. Community colleges tend to be smaller than universities and offer more interaction with faculty. Most of them also have open admissions, meaning that anyone with a high school diploma or GED certificate can enroll.
Many students complete two years at a community college and then transfer to a traditional four-year college or university to complete their bachelor's degree. Cost is a major reason for this: Community colleges are much cheaper than four-year institutions. College Board data shows that in the 2019-2020 school year, the average cost of tuition and fees at a public two-year college was $3,730, compared to $10,440 at a public four-year college.
Liberal arts colleges
Liberal arts colleges are four-year institutions that primarily offer undergraduate education. Because of the lack of graduate programs, research is not usually a major focus of these schools. They concentrate on a well-rounded general education and emphasize problem-solving, critical-thinking, and communication skills.
Liberal arts colleges offer broad programs in areas like literature, history, languages, math, and life sciences. They generally have less variety in majors than universities and do not usually offer professional programs like medicine or engineering.
Some liberal arts colleges are stand-alone institutions, while others are affiliated with a university. These types of colleges tend to be small (most have fewer than 2,500 students) and offer high faculty-to-student ratios. Classes are taught by full-time faculty, not teaching assistants.
Most liberal arts colleges are private, though some public ones do exist. Many graduates of liberal arts colleges go on to get master's or doctoral degrees at universities.
How to Choose the Best Type of School For You
The college vs. university decision can be a tough one. With all the educational options out there, from two-year career colleges and community colleges to four-year liberal arts colleges and universities, finding the school that suits you best can be a challenge. Here are five steps to follow when choosing an institution of higher education:
1. Think about your career goals.
It's important to think about what kind of future you envision for yourself. Do you have a firm idea of what you want for a career? What kind of training does that career require?
If you're after career-focused training that will get you job-ready in a short amount of time, you probably want to look at a career college. If your ultimate goal is a bachelor's degree but you want to save some money doing it, starting at community college and then transferring to a four-year school might be the way to go. If you're unsure about a specific career and would prefer a more general education that lets you explore a number of different areas, or if you want a flexible degree that can be used for a wide spectrum of jobs, then a four-year institution might be the best option.
2. Examine your academic record.
Based on your course grades and test scores, where could you reasonably expect to be admitted? Admission requirements vary among four-year colleges and universities, but most expect a certain level of academic achievement. And competition for spots at the most popular institutions can be fierce.
Community colleges and career colleges typically have open admission, which means that anyone who completes high school is eligible to enroll. That makes these colleges a more accessible option for those students whose high school transcripts might need a little work. If you're aiming for a bachelor's degree but your grades aren't what you would like them to be, spending a couple years at a community college can help get you ready to transfer to a four-year institution to finish your education.
3. Consider your learning style.
Class size can have a big impact on the overall learning experience. Traditional universities tend to have very large classes, especially in the first couple years of an undergraduate program. You could find yourself sitting in a cavernous lecture hall with hundreds of other students. By contrast, classes at liberal arts colleges typically have 20 students or less; classes at community colleges generally range from 25 to 35 students. Career colleges also tend to have some of the lowest student-to-instructor ratios you can find. If one-on-one attention from teachers is important to you, look for a school with smaller class sizes.
On the other hand, smaller institutions typically offer much less in the way of research opportunities and facilities than large universities. If you're an independent learner who is comfortable with self-directed study, or if you relish the idea of being exposed to world-class experts and having access to cutting-edge research facilities, then a large research university might be the best fit for you.
4. Decide what you want out of the college experience.
What is college without dorm life? If that's the way you think, you'll want to look at four-year institutions. Most two-year colleges don't offer housing, whereas most four-year colleges and universities offer students the chance to live on campus. If you like the idea of sharing close quarters with your classmates and not having to travel to attend lectures, then a four-year college or university might be the way to go.
But maybe you don't want to be immersed in campus culture. Maybe you have kids and a job and are trying to fit higher education into your already busy lifestyle. Career colleges and community colleges tend to cater to the commuter crowd, so classes can often be tailored to accommodate work schedules and family commitments. Class schedules at these colleges can sometimes be a little more flexible than at larger institutions. Many schools also offer convenient online programs.
Another factor in the college experience is extracurricular activities. At two-year colleges, it can be harder to get involved in things like clubs and out-of-classroom events, since students don't live on campus and may not be available for extra activities. Students at four-year schools tend to be much more involved in things like clubs, campus newspapers, and professional associations. It's more common to find well-attended game nights, parties, outings, and weekend getaways at four-year institutions. And if fraternities, sororities, or high-profile athletics are important to you, you'll want to look at a four-year school.
5. Assess your financial situation.
How much you can afford to spend on your education will affect what type of school you choose to attend. Community colleges are far cheaper than four-year institutions, which is a big reason why many students complete two years at community college and then transfer to a four-year school. Check out the average published tuition and fees for various types of institutions during the 2019-2020 school year, according to College Board:
- Public two-year college (in-district)—$3,730
- Public four-year college (in-state)—$10,440
- Private four-year college—$36,880
Keep in mind that these are the published prices; many colleges provide subsidies that reduce the amount of tuition a student must pay. Be sure to read about the various forms of financial aid to get a better idea of what you can reasonably afford.
7 Tips for Transferring From a 2-Year to a 4-Year Institution
It's far from unusual for students to begin their quest for a bachelor's degree at a community college. In fact, of all students who earned a bachelor's degree in 2016, 49 percent had previously enrolled at a two-year institution. Whether you are looking to save money on tuition, improve a weak transcript, or fit your college education around work and family obligations, a community college can be a good starting point.
If you think you'd like to finish your degree at a four-year college or university, there are many things you can do to help make your transfer a success. Here are some tips:
1. Plan ahead.
The sooner you map out your transfer plans, the better—ideally, before you even finish high school. Many states have articulation agreements that outline how courses taken at community colleges will satisfy degree requirements at four-year institutions. However, these agreements are usually focused on schools within a single state; if you end up moving to a new state or changing your major, your credits might not transfer the way you expect. Be sure to do your research.
2. Finish your associate degree before you transfer.
A study by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center showed that 72 percent of students who completed a two-year degree before transferring went on to earn a bachelor's degree. But only 56 percent of those who transferred without finishing their two-year credential completed their bachelor's. Your odds of success are much better if you have a full associate degree than if you simply have a smattering of credits.
3. Develop relationships with college advisors.
It's a good idea to talk with an advisor at your community college to make sure your transfer plans are on track. The advisor should be able to help you choose appropriate courses that will count for something at the four-year institution you plan to attend. It wouldn't hurt to reach out to advisors at your target school, either—they may have valuable information that will help smooth the transfer process.
4. Research admission requirements.
According to a report from the National Association for College Admission Counseling, when it comes to transfer students, most institutions place considerable importance on overall grade point average (GPA) at the originating school as well as average grades in transferable courses. So take note of the GPA requirements for the school you plan to transfer to and even the program you want to take—some majors require higher GPAs than others. In some cases, you can be admitted to the four-year college or university without actually being admitted to the program you're interested in. It's up to you to check if the admissions materials or deadlines are different.
5. Look into scholarships for transfer students.
A growing number of scholarships are being earmarked specifically for transfer students. For example, the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation offers up to $40,000 per year to top students who are transferring from two-year community colleges to four-year institutions. And since the pool of transfer students is fairly small relative to the overall student population, your odds of landing some free money might be better than they would otherwise be.
6. Consider living on campus at your target school.
Being the new kid on campus can be intimidating, especially when you're joining a group that has already spent two years together. It can be much easier to integrate into your new academic community if you live in the dorm rather than in an off-campus apartment. Extracurricular activities will be more accessible (joining in can help you find your social footing) and you will have more opportunities to bond with fellow students.
7. Be prepared to put in the work.
Don't expect to coast through community college. Once upon a time, community colleges had a reputation for low academic standards, but those days are long gone. Today, community college classes can be just as challenging as university courses. If you plan to transfer to a four-year institution, your high school record is far less important than how you perform in community college. So be sure to take your studies seriously.
Types of Programs That Allow Transfers
Depending on the particular schools involved, a wide variety of majors will let you transfer credits from community college to a four-year college or university. According to CollegeTransfer.net, the following majors have articulation agreements in place to allow for transfers from some two-year colleges to some four-year institutions:
- Business administration, management, and marketing
- Criminal justice
- Health care
- Environment and conservation
- Political science
- Computer and information sciences
- Hotel management
- Real estate
Map Out Your Future
Deciding on college vs. university can be challenging. If you decide that career college is the right fit for you, it's easy to explore vocational schools in your area that offer job-focused training for all kinds of careers. Start your search today by entering your zip code into the school finder below!