The Difference between Colleges and Universities in the United States

9/25/10 by Anthony Lin

Photo Courtesy of Michael Oh via Flickr

In the United States, people often use the terms, “colleges” and “universities” interchangeably, but they technically don’t mean the same thing.  When Americans say that they go to college, what they mean to say is that they study at a postsecondary institution, such as a four year college, university, or community college.  On the other hand, in other English-speaking countries, such as England, people say that they go to university when referring to their postsecondary institution.

Even though colleges and universities in the United States are both postsecondary institutions, there are a few differences.  For one, American colleges are liberal arts institutions that offer four year degrees.  There are, however, exceptions, as some colleges in the United States also offer graduate degrees.  Community colleges, also known as junior colleges, are another type of college in the United States that only offers two year degrees, which are known as associate’s degrees.

Generally, universities are larger and more well-known than colleges.  Universities have several different colleges and departments within them.  For example, a university could have colleges of liberal arts, music, science, and law. All of the colleges belonging to a particular university are located on the same campus.  Furthermore, universities offer both undergraduate degrees (i.e., bachelor’s degrees) and graduate degrees (i.e., master’s degrees and doctorate degrees).

Why Americans Use the Word “College”

The reason why Americans use the word, “college,” is that all of the colleges and universities in the United States started out as small institutions.  For example, Harvard University used to be called Harvard College, but it changed its name to reflect its growth and expansion.  Harvard is now home to several different colleges and offers advanced degrees.

Nevertheless, some postsecondary institutions in the United States that are technically universities now still use the name “college” because they prefer to stick with their original title for the sake of tradition.  Some colleges and universities in the United States, such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), use the name “institute,” as well.

Keep in mind that in many other countries, colleges and universities are far from being the same thing.  In fact, in some countries, colleges and universities are not both postsecondary institutions.  For instance, in France, “college” refers to junior high school, and in Hong Kong, New Zealand, and South Africa, high schools are referred to as colleges.  In Canada, the term “college” refers to community colleges and vocational schools that award certificates and diplomas, but not degrees.  Colleges and universities in the UK are both postsecondary institutions, but colleges usually have to depend on a university to validate its degrees.

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