College vs. University: What's the Difference?

February 05, 2021 · 7 minute read

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College vs. University: What's the Difference?

For many Americans, the words “college” and “university” are used virtually interchangeably —as attendees at both can earn an undergraduate degree. Having two terms describe similar types of schools can —understandably—be perplexing.

So, how’s a confused student to answer the question: “What’s the difference between a college and a university?”

Whether they opt to attend a college or university, students can earn a bachelor’s degree at either type of higher education institution. Still, some types of US colleges don’t offer four-year degrees— especially, community colleges and career colleges, which typically offer associates degrees and certificate programs.

When it comes to getting an undergraduate degree, understanding the differences between colleges and universities can be key in applying to the school that’s the right fit. (Uncertain where to go? Check out this helpful “What College Should I Go To?” quiz!)

Comparing College vs. University

So, how might a student compare the difference between a college and a university? Colleges and universities are both higher educational institutions that people attend after finishing high school, but there are some major distinctions between the two. Here’s a helpful overview explaining the difference between college vs. university:

Community Colleges

When it comes to understanding colleges, there are a few different types to keep in mind. Community colleges and career colleges are usually smaller, often offering two-year degrees, like an Associate’s Degree or pre-professional certificates. Many community colleges also host online degrees and, in some cases, do not expect students to live on campus.

Some students attend a community college with the intention of then transferring to a four-year college or university to get their undergraduate degree. Others opt for community colleges precisely because they want to earn a pre-professional or technical certificate and then work right away.

Four-Year Colleges

Another major type of college is a four-year institution. These types of colleges offer undergraduate degrees, typically a Bachelor of Arts (BA). Sometimes, students choose to go to community college first because it is less expensive. But, some students will choose to go directly to a four-year college after high school.

Generally, four-year colleges are smaller schools that tend to focus on offering undergraduate degrees and a broad-based curriculum, including the liberal arts. Frequently, four-year colleges expect students to reside on campus during some or all of their studies.

Understanding Universities

Universities can also offer undergraduate degrees, but they differ from colleges in some significant ways. Usually, a university is a larger institution, frequently offering graduate degrees as well.

In addition, most universities tend to be research-focused, hosting on-campus laboratories and hiring faculty recognized for their publications or academic findings. Universities can be either public or private.

One extra (and confusing) snarl here: at some institutions, the word college is also used to describe certain departments or sub-divisions of the school. For instance, a university might refer to the College of Liberal Arts, or the College of Engineering.

Examining Degree Programs

If a student is applying for their undergraduate degree, it can be helpful to know ahead of time which course of study (i.e., pre-med) or major is of interest. This way, it’s possible to research each college or university’s undergraduate academic programs.

Since the terms college and university are sometimes used interchangeably, it may be useful for applicants to do detailed research to see if a school’s academics might further their desired career or study goals.

Pros and Cons of College

When debating college vs university, one possible pro of choosing a college over a university is smaller size. Not all colleges are smaller than universities, but it is a common difference.

Sometimes, going to a smaller school could mean getting more one-on-one time with professors. For students hoping to maintain a relationship with professors after graduation (or those intending to apply to graduate school), more interaction with professors can be an added benefit. Having smaller class sizes could also make it easier to get to know classmates.

Some colleges, especially liberal arts colleges, tend to focus more on general education (rather than offering pre-professional or research-based programs). So, if students want to focus on a particular research topic (or career trajectory) from the start of their undergraduate career, they may want to check that the institutions they’re applying to actually offer those courses of study.

Colleges could also have more limitations in regards to class availability, as some limit the number of students allowed per class. This isn’t the case for every college, so it can be useful to research each specific school’s policies carefully.

Depending on the major chosen, some classes may not be offered every semester at smaller colleges, which could require that students engage in more long-term planning (to ensure they’re able to take all required classes before graduating).

Pros and Cons of University

Universities are, generally, larger and therefore boast more opportunities, when it comes to availability of classes, diversity of majors, and extracurricular activities offered outside of class. Whether it’s finding a niche major or hosting a vast variety of social clubs, larger universities often vaunt a buffet of choices for students.

Both public and private universities offer four-year degrees. There’s typically a difference in price, with public universities often being more affordable (and, in some instances, offering in-state tuition discounts for residents).

Universities might also offer both undergraduate and graduate degrees. Because universities can offer graduate degrees, there’s usually a stronger commitment to research at these schools, including master’s or doctoral degree programs.

For students who are looking to go to graduate school later on, some universities may offer easier admission to their own grad programs for students who finish their undergrad at the same school. If graduate school is a part of a student’s long-term goals, then a research-focused university could be worth a think.

The cons of going to a university can also be tied to size. A larger university can mean there are fewer opportunities for a student to secure one-on-one time with professors. There may be more large lecture classes offered at a university than at smaller colleges, too.

Large class sizes can also make it harder for students to get to know their fellow classmates.

Why Choose One Over the Other?

After all this talk about university vs. college, some readers might be craving a definitive

answer. Ultimately, the choice will depend on each student’s specific situation and academic or career goals. Identifying a specific course of study (or professional trajectory) up front might make it easier to choose which schools to apply to and, ultimately, which one to attend.

It’s important to take into account whether or not research experience is desired, graduate school is a goal, or extracurriculars are important to a student’s experience.

Neither a college or university is, by definition, a better choice. It’s okay to apply to both colleges and universities, as long as each school meets a student’s specific needs.

Funding College or University

Pricing can also impact a student’s choice of college. Applicants may want to consider what each school will cost to attend, opting to schools within their budget or those that offer more generous financial aid.

Whether opting for a college or university, both types of institutions can come with a hefty price tag. Public universities are generally more affordable for in-state students. Even then, it may be necessary for some students to pursue additional financing to pay for their undergraduate education.

Many students opt to fund college through multiple financial resources. Options for funding college include financial aid from the government (grants or loans), scholarships, family resources, and private loans.

When it comes to loans and grants, the total amount of aid you received cannot surpass the cost of attendance.

When students apply for FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid), they can determine if they’re eligible to receive grants or loans from the US government. Eligibility depends on the student’s financial need and additional certification requirements.

Students may be eligible to receive grants, loans, or a combination of the two. Grants typically don’t have to be repaid, but generally loans do. Federal loans come with repayment benefits that usually aren’t available with private student loans, like lower fixed interest rates and flexible repayment options.

Scholarships are sometimes merit-based, meaning they’re awarded based on achievement. In other cases, they’re based on financial need or community-based factors. One place to start looking for scholarships is with a school’s financial aid office.

Private student loans are another option for pay for the cost of college. Private loans are disbursed by non-governmental financial institutions and rates are, generally, based on the student’s credit history and income.

It’s important to do research first to find out how private loans may differ from lender to lender.

SoFi, for instance, offers no-fee private student loans. To learn how private student loans might help pay for a college degree, students may want to check out this guide to private student loans.

Curious if a private student loan is the right choice? SoFi can get you a quote in just 3 minutes!

Check out private student loans with SoFi.

SoFi Private Student Loans
Please borrow responsibly. SoFi Private Student Loans are not a substitute for federal loans, grants, and work-study programs. You should exhaust all your federal student aid options before you consider any private loans, including ours. Read our FAQs. SoFi Private Student Loans are subject to program terms and restrictions, and applicants must meet SoFi’s eligibility and underwriting requirements. See for more information. To view payment examples, click here. SoFi reserves the right to modify eligibility criteria at any time. This information is subject to change.

SoFi Private Student Loans
Please borrow responsibly. SoFi Private Student Loans are not a substitute for federal loans, grants, and work-study programs. You should exhaust all your federal student aid options before you consider any private loans, including ours. Read our FAQs. SoFi Private Student Loans are subject to program terms and restrictions, and applicants must meet SoFi’s eligibility and underwriting requirements. See for more information. To view payment examples, click here. SoFi reserves the right to modify eligibility criteria at any time. This information is subject to change. SoFi Bank, N.A. and its lending products are not endorsed by or directly affiliated with any college or university unless otherwise disclosed.

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Financial Tips & Strategies: The tips provided on this website are of a general nature and do not take into account your specific objectives, financial situation, and needs. You should always consider their appropriateness given your own circumstances.


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