What is the Difference Between University and College?

Posted 12 April 2017
Universities and colleges in North America

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In the United States students often use these three words to describe their educational institution - university, college, school. What are the differences between them and could they be used interchangeably?

University

University is typically a higher education institution that offers both undergraduate and graduate degrees. Universities tend to be large institutions with multiple buildings on campus. They usually have multiple schools within their systems, such as the School of Arts, the School of Sciences, and others. Universities usually offer a broad scope of majors and programs. For example, the University of Vermont has over 100 majors including accredited programs in business and engineering, and a strong healthcare focus.

University of Vermont

College

Colleges are usually smaller in size and they tend not to offer as many majors and programs as universities. Typically colleges do not grant graduate degrees, however there are many exceptions to that rule. Many colleges that offer Master programs choose to leave the word 'college' in their names out of respect to their traditions and history. For example, The City College of New York located in in the borough of Manhattan in New York, USA, offers both undergraduate and graduate programs, but it chose to remain as a 'college' rather than a 'university'.

The City College of New York

School

You may be surprised when American students refer to their universities and colleges as schools, but it is pretty common in the US. This is just a simple way of talking about colleges and universities. So next time you hear anyone mention 'school', remember that they are probably not talking about high school.

Now that it is clear that all colleges and universities can be referred to as schools, and that some colleges are technically universities, you can be a little more familiar with a terminology used in the American education system. Other countries of the world have different definitions for colleges and universities, so you need to keep that in mind when researching your study abroad options.