College – U. Got It?

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What's the difference between a college and a university?If you are heading off to college in the near or distant future, it might have occurred to you to ponder the question: What is the difference between a college and a university?

The answer isn’t that complicated, but it does vary according to your home country. For the purposes of our li’l old blog here, let’s focus on the U.S. and Canada.

Colleges and Universities in the U.S.

In the U.S., the word “college” can refer to any school in the higher ed universe, from the Big 10 to the two-year community college right in your home town. Most people think that the university vs. college debate has to do with the size of the campus or student enrollment. While it’s true that there are many U.S. universities that are much larger than colleges, it’s not always the size that matters. What does matter are the resources and programs the school has to offer.

As you may have already learned during your college search, colleges are made up of different academic departments, while universities are made up of different colleges or schools that are separate entities from each other. For example, if you go off to a college, you might declare a major in the Business department. But if you go to a university, such as the very large Texas A & M in College Station, Texas—more than 38,000 undergrads alone!–you will eventually find yourself a student in one of the 10 smaller colleges on campus, like the College of Liberal Arts or the College of Science.

Of course, there are exceptions to every rule. Boston College in Chestnut Hill, MA is very much a university, but since there already is a Boston University, the moniker remains. Also, Depauw University in Greencastle, IN has just around 2,400 students despite having earned university distinction. So does that mean it’s possible to grow from a college into a university? Sure—just ask the good people at Quinnipiac University, known as Quinnipiac College up until 2000.

Colleges and Universities in Canada

This explanation is more cut and dry: If you hear a Canadian friend say that he or she is off to university in the fall, it’s not a matter of opting for the bigger word. In Canada, universities are degree-granting institutions, while colleges award only career diplomas and certificates. So while American students group colleges, universities, conservatories, and other degree-granting institutions under the name umbrella term “college,” there is an actual difference in the Great White North.

So there you have it. Should you make a decision based on whether or not your school is a college or university? Absolutely not. Your decision needs to be made based on your own goals and interests, not on whether a school is a college or a university.

-Barbara Bellesi


File Under: General


  • Thanks for clearly answering a question we get a lot here at U-CAN and NAICU (National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities), Barbara.

    Yet another case in point: Dartmouth College, which proudly holds onto the college moniker even though it’s an Ivy League institution, and clearly the parallel of its Ivy peers — medical school, major grad programs, etc.

    What we see most often is that smaller colleges that have grown larger and more complex tend to morph into universities. One caution, though — it’s a name change that some institutions choose for largely marketing reasons, just because a “university” does sound more impressive to many people.

  • jacksmith

    A college has small campus & only provide master degrees, but a university is in large campus & also authority to provide not only master degree but also ph.D and other degrees.

  • @Jacksmith–Good point, but size of campus and degrees offered are not always accurate indicators. For example, Emerson College once awarded PhDs in Communication Science and Disorders (there is no PhD program now). Also, there are some colleges that have rather large campuses, so size is not always a true factor in determining university status.

  • Steve

    It was always my understanding that a University offered Doctorate degrees from MORE THAN one program (college). If there were Doctorates only from one area (say, Liberal Arts) then the institution could not call itself a University.

  • idk

    Ok, i have no idea what the difference is still and im tired of lokking up all this just to find a simpler ?…so i give up!!!

  • The difference between a college and a university is that a college just offers a collection of degrees.