Josue Mendivil via Flickr

In the United States, the terms “college” and “university” are sometimes used interchangeably to describe institutions which provide post-secondary education. While there is no official distinction between the words, there may be situations where one is more appropriate than the other.

To many, the word “college” denotes a smaller institution, perhaps offering a narrower range of academic programs, mostly at the level of a bachelor’s degree. “University”, then, would be used to describe a large institution which grants graduate as well as undergraduate degrees. However, there is more to these two words than these general definitions.

Three different usages of “college”

1. Colloquial usage

In everyday speech, most people use “college” when they talk about pursuing an undergraduate degree. For instance, a student will talk about her time “at college” even if she officially attends a university. At least in the US, it sounds odd to talk about “going to university.”

2. Usage in the name of independent institution

An institution may officially refer to itself as a college (e.g. Grinnell College). Very often, colleges are small, have few or no graduate programs, and perhaps offer fewer bachelor’s options than a university. However, some institutions which call themselves colleges, such as The College of William and Mary, don’t perfectly fit that description.

Two-year post-secondary schools may also refer to themselves as colleges. Community colleges, junior colleges, and technical colleges are some examples.

3. Usage in the name of a division of a university

Universities are usually made up of one or more specialized schools, which are commonly referred to as colleges. For instance, the University of Texas is home to the Cockrell College of Engineering, College of Fine Arts, and College of Law. These colleges may grant graduate or undergraduate degrees only, or both.

A fuzzy definition of the word university

In general, a university can be thought of as an institution which includes two or more cooperating colleges. Typically, at least one division of the university will grant graduate-level or professional degrees (e.g. MD, JD). Since they’re made up of more than one college, universities are often larger then colleges.

Many people associate the word “university” with huge state schools, which are publicly subsidized, enroll tens of thousands of students, and employ faculty whose main pursuit is research. While the majority of state schools are universities (there are a few exceptions!), not all universities are public–or exceptionally large. Immaculata University is private and enrolls just 2,500 undergraduates.

What’s not in a word

While colleges and universities may generally differ based on size and the types of degrees they grant, there’s a lot of gray area in the terms. Post-secondary institutions should be evaluated on their individual merits and not based on whether they call themselves college or university.

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