In the United States, the words college and university are often used interchangeably, so understanding the difference between college and university can be difficult. This article provides a detailed guide to college vs university, as well as a breakdown of community colleges vs universities.
Whether you’re interested in gaining your undergraduate or graduate degree, this article will help you understand what is a college vs a university so you can make an informed decision about your future education.
Is College and University the Same?
No, college and university are not the same. Although the terms are often treated as synonyms, the institutions differ in size and degrees offered. Universities are generally larger institutions that offer bachelor’s and graduate degrees. Colleges can include community colleges, liberal arts colleges, and technical colleges that focus on undergraduate education.
That being said, in the United States the terms college and university are used interchangeably to refer to postsecondary education. In other countries, the differences between colleges vs universities are much more significant.
College Diploma vs University Degree
The difference between a college diploma vs a university degree is that a college diploma shows the completion of a specific course or program while a degree signifies the graduation from an in-depth degree program. A diploma may be awarded after you complete a short program at a college. A degree would be awarded after you complete a years-long program at a university.
4-Year College vs University
The main difference between a four-year college vs university is the level of degree they offer. Many community colleges are granted four-year college status once they begin to offer at least one bachelor’s degree program. A four-year college offers mainly associate degrees, bachelor’s degrees, and certificates.
A university is a higher education institution that offers undergraduate and graduate degrees. These can include associate, bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees.
How Many Colleges and Universities Are in the US?
There are 3,982 colleges and universities in the US as of 2020. This is according to the National Center for Education Statistics’ report on degree-granting postsecondary institutions.
What Is a College?
A college is most often a small institution that focuses on undergraduate education. However, this is not always the case. Different types of colleges offer different levels of degrees. For example, community colleges provide associate degrees and undergraduate certificates, but some of them might enroll more students per year than nearby universities.
Community colleges typically offer two-year programs and serve their local communities through affordable education. At these colleges, you typically earn an associate degree. Many community colleges also offer remedial education, GEDs, high school diplomas, technical degrees and certificates, and a limited number of them provide bachelor’s degrees.
A student may choose to attend community college because they generally have an open enrollment policy, meaning anyone can attend. Furthermore, some students choose community college as a cheaper education path as they can complete their associate degree and then transfer credits to a four-year college to complete their bachelor’s degree.
A technical college also typically offers programs that take two years to complete. In the United States, a technical or vocational school is generally a place to learn about business, finance, hospitality, tourism, construction, engineering, visual arts, information technology, or community work. This type of institution is designed to train students for a specific job in a skilled trade.
Liberal Arts College
A liberal arts educational institution falls somewhere between a college and a university. It provides students with an education in a wide range of academic areas instead of having them specialize in one distinct subject. Students are able to choose a specific major later in their college experience.
These colleges are typically smaller than national universities and offer only undergraduate degree programs. They are stereotyped as being focused on humanities subjects. However, this is not always necessarily true as it depends on each liberal arts college.
A junior college is an institution that focuses on providing vocational training for technical and supporting roles in fields like healthcare, engineering, and business administration. These programs can take between one and three years to complete and students are usually granted an applied associate degree upon graduating.
Top 5 Reasons to Attend College
- Community colleges are generally affordable, especially for students who qualify for in-district or in-state tuition. Many students choose to begin their education at a two-year college and transfer to a university in order to save money on the first two years of their undergraduate education.
- If you are looking for an associate degree, technical diploma, or certificate, a college will be able to provide those types of education.
- Class sizes are typically smaller at colleges, so students can expect more significant interaction with their professors.
- Community colleges typically have open enrolment policies, meaning anyone can enroll regardless of their high school GPA or low standardized test scores.
- In addition to attending a community college, you can attend different types of colleges that grant different levels of degrees. Liberal arts colleges grant bachelor’s degrees and allow you to study a broad range of subjects. Junior colleges allow you to specialize in an area and often award a terminal degree for careers in that field.
What Is a University?
A university is a four-year institution that may offer master’s and doctoral degrees in addition to bachelor’s degrees. The most significant difference between college vs university is that universities offer graduate programs. Universities are also typically larger than colleges and have different departments that are often referred to as colleges or schools.
Universities tend to be dedicated to research and creating research opportunities for their students. Additionally, universities have more competitive admission rates and in-depth application processes that usually require specific documents and test scores.
A research university is a higher education institution that provides research opportunities to its students. Research is a large part of the school’s public perception and it receives funding specifically for research.
One example of a well-known American research university is Johns Hopkins University. The research university definition is not an official designation but rather a collection of values that the universities have in common.
Public universities are schools that receive the majority of their funding from a state, municipal, or national government. According to public university definition, they have to follow state rules and regulations.
Public state schools are the most common and offer lower tuition for in-state residents. Although all the Ivy League universities are private, many schools like the University of California, Berkeley are both public and prestigious.
The private university definition is categorized as institutions that are not funded by any government. They are operated and owned by non-profit or for-profit organizations. Tuition is usually higher at private schools than public universities but financial aid is made available to all students.
How to Choose a Good College or University
- Consider costs. Before applying to schools, think about how much you are able to pay for school and what financial aid might be available to you. Public colleges in your state will generally be the most affordable.
- Research the university’s programs. It might be worthwhile to attend a school that is well-known for the subject you want to study. You can find out professors’ credentials and alumni success before applying.
- Consider available research opportunities. Some research universities offer research opportunities to both undergraduate and graduate students. Research is also more applicable to some subjects than others.
- Find out about student support services. You want to make sure the school you attend supports you in more than just academic life. Look for services like tutoring, mental health counseling, and on-campus amenities that can improve your time at the university.
- Pick an accredited school. Accreditation confirms that a school meets a set standard of educational quality. Find out what accrediting body approves the school you hope to attend before applying.
Is University Better Than College?
No, university isn’t better than college. However, whether you choose to attend a university or college will depend on the subject you want to study and the level of degree you’re pursuing. Community colleges are a great place to begin your higher education journey because they’re accessible and affordable.
Is Community College Easier Than a University?
Yes, community college is easier than a university because associate degrees only take two years to complete. You will cover less-advanced topics in a community college associate degree program. However, the quality of education in an associate degree program will provide you with the foundation needed to complete a bachelor’s degree at a university.
How to Transfer From Community College to University
- Maintain a high GPA at your community college. Transferring to a university will be easier if your GPA is high.
- Research the credit transfer policy at the university you hope to attend. Some community colleges have partner schools that will accept all the credits from an associate degree graduate so you will only have to complete two additional years in a bachelor’s degree program.
- Communicate with advisors at your community college and university. Academic advisors will be the best source of information to make sure you can transfer as many credits as possible.
- Research your financial aid options. The scholarships and aid available to you may be different once you transfer to a university. Some transfer students are eligible for specific financial aid.
- Apply to the school you want to attend as a transfer student. Most schools will have a specific set of instructions for how to apply as a transfer student. Make sure you have all the proper documentation.
College and University Rankings: Best Colleges and Universities in the US
|Rank||College Name||Graduation Rate||Average Annual Cost||Median Earnings|
|#4||Massachusetts Institute of Technology||95%||$16,407||$111,222|
Pros and Cons of College vs University
The pros and cons of college vs university do not make either type of institution a bad choice. Both colleges and universities provide quality education to their students. Find out more about comparing college vs university below.
Colleges are generally cheaper than universities, especially if you are planning to attend a community college for your associate degree. Public colleges are also relatively cheap for in-state students. Private universities are much more expensive but you may be able to receive enough financial aid to cover costs.
One of the pros of attending a university is prestige. Universities tend to carry more weight on a resume or CV, especially when compared to community colleges. Although the quality of education is comparable, university education may be more significant to future employers.
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Universities tend to offer a wider range of programs. Although liberal arts colleges offer degrees outside of the field of humanities, colleges are generally smaller and therefore have fewer degree programs to choose from.
Universities are larger and often offer more campus amenities to students than colleges. Although some colleges offer campus housing to students, community colleges do not. Some universities, like Northeastern University in Boston, guarantee housing to students for all four years of their undergraduate education.
Universities classes are often taught by leaders in their fields. However, because universities tend to have larger classes, especially in the first two years of undergrad, professors may not be able to provide individualized attention to students. University professors might also be involved in research outside of the classroom, which means classes might be taught by teaching assistants.
Accredited College or University: What’s the Difference Between College and University Accreditation?
There is no difference between college and university accreditation in the US. Colleges and universities can both be accredited by national and regional accrediting bodies. However, colleges are most often nationally accredited because national accreditation is granted to vocational schools and technical colleges.
There are six regional accrediting bodies that accredit state universities and non-profit private institutions. Schools can also be granted programmatic accreditation by bodies that specialize in accrediting specialized programs like nursing or business.
College vs University: Tuition and Fees
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, two-year colleges are the cheapest education option in the United States. One year of tuition and fees at a public two-year institution costs $3,377 for in-state students and $8,126 for out-of-state students.
Comparatively, one year of tuition at a public four-year school, which includes colleges and universities, is $9,349 for in-state students and $27,038 for out-of-state students. The average cost of tuition at a private four-year institution is $32,769 per year.
However, a report by the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that higher education pays, with associate degree holders making $963 per week on average and professionals with bachelor’s degrees making an average of $1,334 each week. Although university tuition may be higher, having a higher degree could allow you to earn more and be able to pay off college debt faster.
Community College vs University Financial Aid
As a student at a community college or university you will have access to financial aid. Financial aid can be offered in the form of scholarships, grants, and loans. Grants and scholarships are awarded based on academic merit or financial need and do not need to be paid back, while loans do need to be repaid within a certain time frame.
You can get financial aid from the federal government by completing the FAFSA or by finding scholarships offered by private organizations. There are also institution and state-specific scholarships that may be available to you. Listed below are multiple kinds of financial aid available for community college and university students:
- Pell Grant
- Federal student loans
- PLUS Loans
- Private student loans
- Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants (FSEOG)
- Teacher Education Assistance for College and Higher Education (TEACH) Grants
- Iraq and Afghanistan Service Grants
- Academic merit scholarships
- Talent scholarships
- Program-specific scholarships
- The Federal Work-Study Program
- Aid for military veterans and their families
Colleges vs University Salaries: Which One Results in Higher Salaries?
University degrees result in higher salaries. College diplomas tend to lead to technical positions assisting those with higher degrees. Although jobs that require a college diploma are important, they are generally not compensated well. At a university, you can get a bachelor’s, master’s, or doctoral degree, all of which lead to increasingly high salaries.
Jobs That Require a College Diploma
Electrical and Electronics Installer and Repairer
- Average Salary: $61,760
- Job Outlook (2020 to 2030): 2%
- Required Education: Courses or associate degree in electrical equipment and electronics, on-the-job training
Electrical and electronics installers and repairers can work as independent contractors or for larger companies. Their responsibilities typically include assessing issues with electrical and electronic equipment and proposing solutions. This might include taking apart, cleaning, repairing, and reassembling components of vehicles or large machines.
Wind Turbine Technician
- Average Salary: $56,260
- Job Outlook (2020 to 2030): 68%
- Required Education: Technical or community college certificate, diploma, or associate degree, on-the-job training (up to 12 months)
Wind turbine technicians are trained professionals who inspect and repair wind turbines, which involves being trained to climb wind turbines and collect data that can be used for research and analysis. Becoming a wind turbine technician can be a very secure career path, as they are highly in-demand professionals.
- Average Salary: $38,660
- Job Outlook (2020 to 2030): 11%
- Required Education: Dental assisting diploma or on-the-job training (exam may be required in some states)
Dental assistants work with dentists to provide a professional and comfortable environment for patients. They sterilize and organize equipment, take X-rays, and keep track of patient records. Dental assistants’ duties may differ based on the state they are working in.
- Average Salary: $34,050
- Job Outlook (2020 to 2030): 0%
- Required Education: Postsecondary certificate or diploma in library technology
Library technicians loan materials to library patrons and do library-related administrative tasks. They catalog books and other materials and answer questions from patrons. Their duties may differ depending on whether they work in public, private, specialized, or academic libraries.
- Average Salary: $30,290
- Job Outlook (2020 to 2030): 8%
- Required Education: College diploma or associate degree, state licensing exams
Nursing assistants work under the supervision of licensed nurses and registered nurses. They help patients bathe, dress, eat, and move. They don’t generally offer medical advice, but rather listen to patient concerns and report the information to nurses and doctors. Nursing assistants may work in hospitals but most often work in nursing and other private care facilities.
Jobs That Require a University Degree
- Average Salary: $100,370
- Job Outlook (2020 to 2030): 17%
- Required Education: Doctor of Veterinary Medicine Degree, state license
Veterinarians provide medical care for animals. They perform routine check-ups, write prescriptions, and perform surgeries. They work in private veterinary offices or for corporations and often collaborate with veterinary technicians and assistants. You can become a veterinarian and specialize in treating pets, livestock, or food animal inspection.
- Average Salary: $97,410
- Job Outlook (2020 to 2030): 6%
- Required Education: Bachelor’s Degree in Bioengineering, Biomedical Engineering, or a related engineering field
Biomedical engineers usually work in research facilities or as part of a company’s quality assurance team. There are many different facets of biomedical engineering, so an individual’s responsibilities will differ based on the organization they work for and their specialization. In general, they research and develop projects that benefit healthcare.
- Average Salary: $93,000
- Job Outlook (2020 to 2030): -10%
- Required Education: Bachelor’s Degree in Computer Science or a related field
Computer programmers write and test code that allows software to function. They work closely with software engineers and developers to turn ideas into code that computers can understand. When necessary, they test and debug programs. Becoming a computer programmer is a popular career path because it pays well.
- Average Salary: $78,500
- Job Outlook (2020 to 2030): 7%
- Required Education: Master’s Degree in Urban or Regional Planning
Urban planners develop plans for sites in cities and metropolitan areas. They work with public officials and developers to come up with plans for land use and infrastructure. There are multiple fields within urban planning, including transportation and historical preservation.
- Average Salary: $77,600
- Job Outlook (2020 to 2030): 9%
- Required Education: Bachelor’s Degree in Nursing, state nursing license
Registered nurses work in hospitals and care facilities to provide healthcare and medical advice to patients and their families. They explain medical issues and procedures and educate patients and families on health. They operate and monitor medical equipment as well as take vitals and perform tests. There are multiple pathways to becoming a registered nurse.
Should I Go to a University or College?
You should go to a university if you want to pursue a bachelor’s or graduate degree in a specific subject or if you aim to complete research and years of studying to get into your dream job. You should go to a college if you would like to pursue more technical training or take a cheaper education route.
When deciding whether to attend a college vs a university, consider your financial, educational, and career goals. The differences between the two can be very subtle. Research the career of your dreams and what level of education it requires and use that as a basis for choosing between a college and university.
College vs University FAQ
Boston College and Boston University are both private, not-for-profit higher education institutions based in Boston, Massachusetts. However, the schools are not affiliated with one another. Additionally, Boston College is much smaller than Boston University, with around 15,000 students compared to Boston University’s 33,000.
Yes, you can get financial aid for going to either university or college. Federal and private loans are available, in addition to federal grants and scholarships. Depending on your program, school, and location, the types of financial aid may differ slightly.
Graduate school is a part of a university. Students who are pursuing a master’s degree attend graduate school at the university of their choosing. There are not any graduate schools in the US that are not a part of a larger university.
It is better to go to college if you are hoping to pursue a specialized technical degree or diploma at a technical college or attend a liberal arts college. A university is better if you want a more traditional education or are hoping to pursue a master’s degree.
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