College vs. University: What is the Difference?


This colorful illustration considers the definition of college vs, university. It features a white pencil, a pair of glasses and a student pondering the question.

Do you plan to attend a college or a university? In the U.S., we use the two terms so interchangeably that a lot of people don’t even know they are separate things.

So, what is the difference, and does it matter?

Both colleges and universities grant undergraduate degrees. They are generally academic equals. But a university must meet some additional requirements to earn its name. Let’s dive into a comparison of the two.


For starters, yes, a college is an institution of higher learning, and it’s where you can earn a degree and/or receive specialized professional training.

However, many people think all colleges are private institutions. Not true. Colleges include both two-year institutions, such as community colleges offering associate degrees, and four-year schools offering bachelor’s degrees.

Meanwhile, other colleges focus on one specialty. It might be a college of engineering or a military college, to name two examples.

Colleges sometimes, but not always, have smaller student bodies and smaller class sizes. They tend to cultivate a close-knit feel, where students with specialized interests congregate.

Liberal arts colleges, which many people think of when they hear the word “college,” offer a sweeping range of classes across the humanities and sciences. A student might start out at a liberal arts school undecided about his or her major because these institutions offer more flexibility for folks who want time to pinpoint what they wish to study.

In general, colleges award undergraduate degrees within a broad scope of academic areas.

Next, we’ll take a look at what makes a university unique.


Like colleges, universities come in public or private varieties—but we often associate them with very large state institutions, such as the University of Michigan or the University of California system. The Ivy League is composed of prestigious universities such as Harvard and Yale, but not all universities are large or have highly competitive admission standards.

To reach university status, a college must meet certain requirements for at least five years:

  • The school must have a graduate studies program separate from the undergrad program, and with staff whose primary responsibility is administering that program.
  • Graduate programs must lead to advanced degrees in a minimum of three academic fields.
  • The school must be accredited.

In the end, “college” vs. “university” boils down to graduate degrees, which all universities must offer.

Many also have schools of medicine or law. Some sponsor accelerated programs for students who want to earn both their bachelor’s and master’s degrees in a field where a postgraduate degree is vital for employment.

Finally, most universities are dedicated to producing research. This allows for hands-on learning opportunities through research projects and partnerships with graduate students.

Clearing Up Some Common Confusions

As mentioned earlier, Americans tend to say “college” and “university” to refer to the same thing. And that can get confusing in certain contexts.

After high school, if you pursue post-secondary studies, most people will refer to you as a college student, regardless of whether you attend a college or a university.

Meanwhile, you can attend a university and end up studying at a college within that university. (For example, the University of Oxford in the U.K. calls its different academic communities “colleges.” There are more than 30 of them.)

Another point to consider is that, outside of the U.S., many countries use “college” to refer to schools that would be at the high school level in America (i.e., Anatolia College in Thessaloniki, Greece). So the term “college” can cause confusion for international students looking to study in the United States.

Just to make matters a little more complicated, some U.S. universities don’t even call themselves universities. A few, such as the College of William and Mary in Virginia, keep “college” in their names out of tradition. Then there is Boston College, which never made the change because there is already a Boston University.

Elmhurst University, in the suburbs of Chicago, changed its name from Elmhurst College in July of 2020. In Elmhurst’s case, the university name more accurately reflects its educational profile as a higher education institution that offers graduate programs while still keeping its smaller class sizes and close-knit feel.

Explore Elmhurst University

Though Elmhurst University changed its name, its emphasis on liberal arts education and professional preparation remains the same.

Want to learn more about what Elmhurst offers? Request more information today!

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