What Makes a College and a University?

As you spend your time looking for a place to educate yourself after high school, you’ve undoubtedly come across some institutions that label themselves as a “college,” and some that are listed as a “university.” But what’s the difference, and is one better than the other? Which one is right for you?

The question of “which one is right for you” can be difficult to answer if you are not educated about the differences between a college and a university. That alone can make your search all the more difficult.

So, to ease some of your stress and to help make your search for a higher education institution a bit easier for you, we will give you a breakdown on what the difference between a college and a university truly is, and what might make one or the other a better fit for you.

College? What’s that?

The term college can and will be thrown around loosely. You’ve probably heard someone say, “I’m going to college,” when they are in fact headed to a school with the university label. While the term is generally used for all institutions of higher education, there are some institutions that are strictly colleges.

First off, colleges are typically much smaller than universities, offering much smaller class sizes, giving the students more personalized attention from professors and advisors. They also tend to be more devoted to the teaching of undergraduate students, and pay less attention to special research (although some still have very large research programs). Colleges will also tend to be very focused in the course material and subject matter that they teach, like placing a high emphasis on literature and art (this is particularly so at liberal arts colleges); so you will find less abstract courses and a smaller range of classes to choose from. Many colleges will teach a very unique curriculum.

Because of their small size, most colleges do not offer a broad range of classes. This is due to the fact that the majority of the students at the college decided to attend there, because of the college’s unique focus.

Most colleges are usually private, meaning they do not receive funding from the state government. A lot of them tend to have a religious affiliation.

Many colleges only offer undergraduate degrees, associates and bachelors, but there are of course exceptions to the rule, as some colleges will offer a few graduate programs.

College Pros and Cons

Pros

  • More personal attention from professors and advisors due to smaller size.
  • Higher emphasis on undergraduate teaching.
  • More specialized curriculum for students with very specific interests.
  • Closer and more tight-knit student community.

Cons

  •       Fewer resources and facilities for research.
  •       Professors are less likely to be leaders in their field (especially research).
  •       Generally do not offer access to graduate degrees.
  •       Fewer course offerings overall.

A University?

A university is on average much larger than a college, and will offer both undergraduate and graduate programs (think master’s and PhD’s). Many of them will also have professional schools, like business, law, and medical schools, affiliated with them. Many students who attend a university can achieve their bachelors and graduate degree, MBA (master of business administration), MFA (master of fine arts), law degree, PhD, MD, from the same institution. This can also often be achieved, on average, in a shorter period of time. Some universities will even offer five-year programs for career fields in which a graduate degree is necessary.

Universities tend to have a much larger and greater variety of course offerings in their curriculum. This is due to a much bigger and more diverse student body. The university is then generally divided into small sections that will be called “colleges” (like the College of Liberal Arts) for undergraduate students that promote their specific focus of study. Usually this means that most students choosing to attend a university have to choose their focus of study or “college” before enrolling and it can be difficult to switch during your time at the university and lead to more time spent there overall.

Undergraduate teaching is usually not the primary focus at a university, mainly because a university tends to have a lot of students, with the vast majority of them being undergraduate students. Universities will then place much more emphasis on research; that of both faculty and graduate students. On the plus side of this, universities offer many opportunities for hands-on learning, independent research and partnership research with other graduate students and/or faculty. The professors at a university will also tend to be experts and leaders in their particular field. The downfall, however, is that the professors are usually at the university, because of its research facilities, funding and opportunities, so they tend to be less engaged with the student body.

University Pros and Cons

Pros

  • Many more facilities and research opportunities for students.
  • More access to advance degrees and interaction with and between graduate students.
  • More likely that professors are recognized and reputable figures in their field.
  • More overall course offerings in the curriculum.

Cons

  • Universities tend to have less one-on-one attention for students from professors and advisors.
  • Research at a university tends to take emphasis over the teaching of undergraduates.
  • There tends to be less common ground between undergraduate students in interests and experiences.
  • Much more difficult to be indecisive about what you want to study and switch majors should you decide to.

Which is Better for You? A College or a University?

Hopefully this helps make your choice a bit easier when deciding between a college and a university.

College might be for you, if…

  • You prefer a small community of students where you always see someone you know.
  • Prefer small classes and close relationships with your professors.
  • Are not in tune with your plans following graduation.
  • Are undecided about your major.

A university might be for you, if…

  • You prefer a large and vibrant student body where you constantly meet new people.
  • Do not mind large class sizes and want to do research.
  • You are more certain about your academic goals and future career.
  • Desire a graduate degree of some type.