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What’s the difference between college and university?

interstride logo by Interstride
November 3, 2023

As an international student studying in the United States, you might hear higher education referred to as both “college” and “university.” Oftentimes, these terms are informally used interchangeably. They may also be used differently in the US than they are in your home country, making things extra confusing for international students. While there are many similarities between colleges and universities, there are some distinctive differences.

What is a college?

“College” in the US refers to an institution where students can receive a four-year or two-year degree. The majority of colleges in the US tend to be smaller in size than universities, with an emphasis on undergraduate education. However, some colleges offer both undergraduate and graduate programs. As the majority of colleges are “private,” they tend to be more expensive than public universities, which is an important consideration for international students.

Colleges can also take many forms, such as:

  • Liberal arts colleges – Through liberal arts programs, students can pursue a broad education in areas like humanities, art, or science, rather than specializing in a major right away. Though not always the case, colleges may have fewer research opportunities than universities. Some colleges also may specialize in certain disciplines as a whole, such as colleges in the arts (i.e. the Rhode Island School of Design, Juilliard School, etc.).
  • Community colleges – Community colleges offer two-year programs, through which students can receive an associate degree. Domestic and international students can attend a community college for two years, and then transfer to a four-year college for their remaining two years to earn a bachelor’s degree.
  • Technical or vocational colleges – Also known as trade schools, these colleges offer two-year programs that provide students with specialized training in certain fields (i.e. ITT Technical Institute, Culinary Institute of America, etc.). These schools typically focus on specialized skills training (e.g. culinary, pharmacy, carpentry, electric, etc.), as opposed to general education courses.
  • Colleges affiliated with universities – A college can be affiliated with a larger university. For example, Harvard College is the undergraduate institution of Harvard University. Large universities might separate programs of study into separate colleges, allowing for more specialized curricula and departments. These smaller colleges within larger universities are also sometimes called schools such as the School of Engineering at Stanford University.
Interstride Tip! It’s common in the US for people to say “college” when referring to where they went to undergraduate school regardless of whether it was a college or university. For example, a parent may say, “My child is leaving for college today”, or a student may say, “I went to college at UMass.” Conversationally, “college” is the American equivalent of “uni” in the UK.

What is a university?

In the US, “university” refers to an institution where students can receive both undergraduate and graduate degrees. Universities typically tend to be bigger than colleges, and they offer a larger variety of degree programs, specializations, and research opportunities. There are two types of universities – public and private.

Public vs private universities 

What is a public university? Public universities are most often the larger of the two, enrolling thousands of students. Public universities are also usually state-affiliated and receive a large portion of funding from the state or federal government. Tuition at public universities for international students tends to be lower than at private universities.

Examples of public universities:

  • Ball State University
  • Colorado School of Mines
  • State University of New York
  • University of California, Berkeley
  • University of Texas, Austin

What is a private university? Private universities tend to be smaller than public universities. They also rely more on tuition and alumni donations for their source of funding. While the tuition fees for international students at private universities tend to be higher than those at public universities, private universities tend to offer more institutional financial aid, which is important for international students who don’t qualify for federal financial aid.

Examples of private universities:

  • Northwestern University
  • Princeton University
  • Tulane University‎
  • University of Phoenix
  • Wake Forest University

Pros and cons of colleges vs. universities

  • Smaller class sizes and a more personalized learning experience
  • Heavy focus on undergraduate education
  • Tight-knit community, allowing for more networking opportunities
  • Flexible course pathways and programs
  • Limited number of research opportunities and academic resources
  • Can have a lack of diversity and extracurricular activities, depending on the size of the campus
  • Can have fewer degree options
  • Usually do not offer graduate degree
  • Wider array of program areas and advanced degrees – most graduate schools are at universities
  • Often offer a large number of academic resources and research opportunities for students
  • Larger and more diverse student community
  • Larger class sizes, meaning less personalized learning
  • More academic competition, as the student body tends to be larger
  • Tend to have more rigid academic structures and programs
  • Can be less expensive for students but may offer less financial aid

What type of school is right for you? 

How do you know if a university or a college is right for you? As an international student, that depends on several factors.

  • Are you looking for a smaller or larger school?
  • Are you looking to focus more on research or more on a holistic education?
  • Are tuition costs a high or low priority in your decision?
  • Are you looking for financial aid or scholarships as an international student?

Determining if a college or university is right for you depends on your interests, needs, and future career aspirations as an international student. A good first place to start when deciding between a university vs. college is the size of the school. International students should also consider the style of learning environment you are looking for. Smaller schools tend to have smaller class sizes, making it easier to engage with professors, ask questions, and have a more intimate learning experience.

Interstride Tip! You can find complete lists of liberal arts colleges, community colleges, and universities in the US from US News. You can also explore Interstride’s blog to learn more about different types of colleges and universities in the US.

Final thoughts

There is no right or wrong when it comes to choosing a college or university in the US. The right fit for you as an international student depends on your needs as a student, your interests in certain degree programs or research opportunities, and your post-graduation career aspirations. Once you know your needs, preferences, and goals, you can determine if a university vs. college is better for you. Explore more types of colleges in the US from Interstride’s blog.