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What's the Difference Between College and University in the USA?

Are you considering studying in the USA and unsure whether you should apply to a college or a university? In this article, we explain the difference between college and university in the USA.

Feb 21, 2024
  • Education
The difference between college and university in the USA

In the US, the terms "college" and "university" are often used interchangeably. While both institutions offer undergraduate programs and provide unique student experiences, it's important to differentiate between the features of each to help you make an informed decision on where to apply. Ultimately, understanding the differences between a college and a university can help you determine the right fit for your academic and career goals. So what's the difference between college and university in the USA, and which one should you choose?

What is a University in the USA?

A university is a higher education institution that offers undergraduate and graduate degree programs. Sometimes, they even have accelerated programs, meaning you can get both your Bachelor's and your Master's in a shorter amount of time. Some public universities enroll tens of thousands of students across all levels. It is not as common for private universities though, since they are more selective and can be much smaller.

What may confuse you is that universities are often made up of several institutions that are referred to as colleges or schools. These specialized institutions can include law schools, medical schools, and so on. Universities are also generally more devoted to research, many have their own laboratories and facilities.

What are the positives of studying at a university in the USA?

First of all, universities provide a broad variety of programs and courses, so you have a lot to choose from. You can compare the characteristics of each program to decide which one aligns best with your skills and goals.

Also, since universities are usually quite large, they allow you to meet and work with people from many diverse backgrounds. For a lot of students, making friends and building connections is one of the top reasons to pursue higher education.

Last but not least, earning an undergraduate or graduate degree opens many doors for you: from job opportunities in industry to academic research.

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What are the negatives of studying at a university in the USA?

If getting higher education on a budget is your priority, universities may not be for you. The total costs of attending a four-year university (including tuition, accommodation, books, and other fees) can get really high and result in student loan debt.

Additionally, due to large class sizes, you can find it harder to have closer relationships with your professors and register for the course you are interested in.

What is a College in the USA?

A student in the college classroom

Unlike the universities in the USA, colleges focus on undergraduate education and usually award certificates, associate and/or Bachelor's degrees. The majority of these schools are private and receive little to no state funding.

Typically, colleges in the USA do not offer a wide range of graduate programs and may not have that many research opportunities. However, you still may find colleges that do provide all that as well.

There are different types of colleges to choose from, including community colleges, liberal arts colleges, and technical and vocational colleges.

What is a liberal arts college in the USA?

Liberal arts colleges offer 4-year Bachelor's degrees. Rather than specializing in a single academic area, liberal arts colleges provide a diverse education to students and employ a broad approach to knowledge, especially in the humanities and social sciences. However, many of these schools also offer degrees in science fields.

These colleges don't exactly prepare you for a job - they focus on providing you with soft skills, like communication and critical thinking, and helping you understand lots of different domains of knowledge.

What is a community college in the USA?

Community colleges, on the other hand, are 2-year schools that grant associate degrees and career-related certificates. Many students choose these institutions to complete their general education requirements for an affordable tuition fee and then transfer to a 4-year college or university to finish their Bachelor's degree.

Moreover, community colleges offer an excellent opportunity for students to explore and sample different career paths in a more comfortable environment, due to their small class sizes and flexible schedule.

What is a technical/vocational college in the USA?

Technical and vocational colleges (or trade schools) are 2-year colleges that offer training for specific career fields. While technical college graduates often receive associate degrees, vocational colleges primarily provide certificates.

These colleges usually have intensive programs and focus on developing practical skills and knowledge. For many students, it can be a good opportunity to get work experience and figure out their life goals first, before pursuing a Bachelor's degree.

What are the pros of colleges in the USA?

Generally, studying at a college may be the right option if you're interested in a highly specialized field of study. Colleges are also more devoted to teaching as opposed to research. A 2-year college education can be a good chance to figure out your career goals before committing to a Bachelor's degree.

Due to a smaller faculty-to-student ratio, colleges in the US tend to provide a more personalized learning experience. Smaller classes make having discussions and requesting assistance more comfortable.

Lastly, community colleges tend to be a much more affordable option, since the tuition costs a fraction of that for a 4-year university.

What are the cons of colleges in the USA?

Compared to large universities, colleges may not offer as diverse a community. And, while having certain advantages, small colleges probably won't be able to provide many resources and facilities.

Also, 2-year colleges tend to offer associate degrees, which only cover the basic curriculum and do not offer a large variety of courses and programs.

What are colleges within universities in the USA?

University campus

Universities can be home to many smaller institutions that focus on a particular field of study - often referred to as colleges. Each college has a specific academic focus, such as business, engineering, or social work.

Even though sometimes you're required to apply to a particular college within a university, you are essentially a part of the university as a whole. This means that you are still considered a university student.

This division of a large university into subsections promotes a stronger sense of academic community among students in each college.

Should I study at a college or a university?

To answer that question for yourself, you should determine your academic and career goals first. It also can be helpful to consider your budget and available scholarships, your learning style, and what you expect to gain from your education experience.

If you want to get all the necessary skills and enter the workforce as fast as possible, then technical and vocational colleges should be your first choice. Although it might not be the cheapest option, full-time students typically can earn their certificates in less than 2 years.

For students seeking a traditional college experience, with diverse connections and campus hang-outs, a university or a liberal arts college may be a better fit.

The most cost-effective option to get a Bachelor's degree would be to start your education in a 2-year college and then transfer to a university. You can save thousands of dollars by completing general education requirements in a community college, for example. However, if your motivation primarily comes from your environment, this might not be the best choice.

Suppose you’d like to pursue a graduate degree or conduct research as part of your studies. In that case, a university education will be perfect for you, as it is the key difference between college and university in the USA. It can be more difficult for students to develop close relationships with their professors when they are in larger classes, but the chance of finding like-minded peers is higher. Additionally, universities offer a huge variety of programs, resources, and opportunities for extracurricular activities.