College vs.  University: What’s the Difference?  |  Best Global Universities

The difference between a college and a university in the US may not always be apparent, especially to students who grew up in other parts of the world. The word “college” doesn’t have the same meaning in every country, which can create confusion for prospective international students interested in studying in the US

“In Spanish, ‘colegio’ means high school,” says George DaPonte, director of international admissions at the University of Tampa in Florida, citing one example.

For this and other reasons, some prospective students may pass over US schools that have “college” instead of “university” in their name, admissions experts say. By doing so, students could miss out on a school that may have been a good fit.

While some four-year postsecondary institutions in the US have “college” in their name and others have “university,” both types grant undergraduate degrees. Here are some other things to keep in mind when researching US institutions that call themselves colleges and those that identify as universities.

What Is a College?

Often schools with “college” in their name are smaller institutions that emphasize undergraduate education, Johanna Fishbein, director of college and university counseling at The American School in Switzerland (TASIS), said by email. This is not a strict rule, since there are a number of exceptions.

Some colleges, known as liberal arts colleges, give students an education in a broad range of academic areas as opposed to having them specialize early in one particular subject.

“Although liberal arts colleges do exist in other countries, such as in Europe, they are much less common and they don’t always include the residential community living experiences that you find at American liberal arts schools,” says Hannah Kim, associate director of international admission at Franklin & Marshall College in Pennsylvania.

Prospective students may also sometimes mistakenly believe liberal arts institutions focus only on the humanities, admissions experts say. But many of these schools offer degrees in science fields, too.

Another common misconception is that schools with “college” in their name don’t offer much in the way of research opportunities, Fishbein says.

But, for example, 65% of Franklin & Marshall students participated in research before they graduated, Kim says.

Another type of school in the US with “college” in its name is a community college. These are two-year schools that grant associate degrees and career-related certificates. Community colleges vary in enrollment size – some are large, despite having “college” in their name.

Some students begin their education at a community college and then transfer to a four-year college or university to complete a bachelor’s degree.

What Is a University?

Many schools with “university” in their name are larger institutions that offer a variety of both undergraduate and graduate degree programs.

Public universities are some of the largest schools, sometimes enrolling tens of thousands of students. These schools are also highly committed to producing research.

But it is a misconception that all schools with “university” in their name are big, says Chelsea Keeney, director of international student recruitment, sponsored students and exchanges at the University of Minnesota—Twin Cities.

Also, not all universities are public. Private universities include, among many institutions, some of the Ivy League schools, such as Princeton University in New Jersey.

Sometimes adding to the confusion for international students, Keeney says, is the fact that large universities are often made up of smaller divisions called colleges. Each of these colleges has a specific academic focus, such as business, engineering or social work.

And liberal arts-type study is not exclusive to small colleges. Some universities have a core curriculum for undergraduates, meaning students take a variety of general education courses before focusing on their major.

By the nature of their size, large universities tend to offer a wider array of research opportunities than small colleges. “But undergraduate students may need to compete with graduate students for resources and opportunities,” Fishbein says.

Which Type of School Is Right for You?

“A good place to start research is the size of the institution. Many colleges in the US emphasize small faculty-to-student ratios,” Kim says.

(US News offers an array of college rankings and school profiles where students can view updated data about each college or university to inform their decision.)

Kim says most liberal arts colleges have small class sizes that focus on group discussions and class participation rather than larger lecture-style classes. She says Franklin & Marshall College has a 10:1 faculty-to-student ratio with an average class size of about 17 students, “which creates a close-knit community where students are encouraged to personalize their educational experience.”

Researching the style of learning environment at an institution can be a good starting point, she notes.

“It can also be a good idea to apply to a variety of types of institutions, since you may be surprised by the options and opportunities available that you hadn’t previously considered,” Kim says.

DaPonte says making an informed decision can include looking at schools’ social media sites, reviewing testimonials from current students and getting advice from family, friends and a trusted college counselor. He also recommends visiting a campus of interest, sitting in a class and chatting with current students in the dining hall or quad.

Kenney encourages students to put less emphasis on college vs. university and instead refocus on programmatic offerings, campus life, costs, scholarships, outcomes, research spending and connection with current students.

“For the best fit of a new student, I recommend reflection on the individual priorities,” Keeney says.

These can include whether the school has faculty-led research opportunities for undergraduates, robust study abroad options and certain degree programs. It also means looking at location and proximity to home.

“These attributes are not tied to college vs. university, but rather a reflection on a unique student preference,” says Keeney.


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