College vs University: What's the Difference?

By Brandi Lucey · August 16, 2023 · 7 minute read

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College vs University: What's the Difference?

Many Americans use the words “college” and “university” interchangeably, since both refer to schools that offer undergraduate degree programs. However, there are actually some key differences between colleges and universities.

Generally, schools that are called “colleges” tend to be smaller and focused on two- or four-year degrees, while those with “university” in their name are often larger institutions that offer a variety of both undergraduate and graduate degree programs.

If you’re applying to college or graduate school, it can be helpful to understand the similarities and differences between colleges and universities. Here are key things to know.

Key Points

•   Colleges often focus on undergraduate degrees and may offer a more intimate educational environment with smaller class sizes.

•   Universities typically provide both undergraduate and graduate programs and may have a stronger emphasis on research.

•   Community colleges and career colleges offer two-year degrees and certificates with some students transferring to four-year institutions.

•   Universities might have various colleges within them, such as a College of Arts and Sciences.

•   The choice between a college and a university can depend on the student’s educational and career goals, as well as the desired campus environment.

Comparing College vs 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 than traditional colleges, often offering two-year degrees, like an Associate’s Degree or pre-professional certificate. 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.

💡 Quick Tip: You can fund your education with a low-rate, no-fee private student loan that covers all school-certified costs.

Four-Year Colleges

Another major type of college is a four-year institution. These schools 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.

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Understanding Universities

Universities 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 divisions of the school. For instance, a university might have a College of Arts and Sciences or College of Engineering.

Pros and Cons of a College

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

In some cases, going to a smaller school can mean getting more one-on-one time with professors. If you’re hoping to maintain a relationship with professors after graduation (or 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). If you have a particular interest or career you want to focus on as soon as you start college, it can be a good idea to make sure any colleges you’re applying to offer that field of study.

In some cases, a college might 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 your chosen major, some classes may not be offered every semester at smaller colleges, which could mean you’ll need to engage in more long-term planning to ensure you’re able to take all required classes before graduating.

Pros and Cons of a University

Universities are, generally, larger and therefore boast more opportunities when it comes to availability of classes, diversity of majors, and extracurricular activities. Whether you’re interested in a niche major or looking for a wide variety of social clubs, you may be more likely to find it at a larger university.

Both public and private universities offer four-year degrees. There’s typically a difference in price — public universities are typically more affordable for in-state residents compared to private universities and colleges.

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.

If you’re looking to get an undergraduate and graduate degree at the same school, a university may be a good choice, since it might be easier to get accepted to the graduate program if you’ve already earned a degree at that school.

The cons of going to a university can also be tied to size. A larger university might not offer as many opportunities to secure one-on-one time with professors that you might find at a college. 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.

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Why Choose One Over the Other?

Whether it’s better to go to a college or a university 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.

If you’re interested in getting research experience and/or you’re looking for a variety of extracurricular activities, you might be happier with a university. If, on the other hand, you’re keen on getting a liberal arts education, value smaller classes, and/or would enjoy more opportunity to interact with your professors and classmates, you might feel more at home at a college.

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 your specific needs.

💡 Quick Tip: Would-be borrowers will want to understand the different types of student loans that are available: private student loans, federal Direct Subsidized and Unsubsidized loans, Direct PLUS loans, and more.

Funding College or University

Cost can also be a major factor when deciding where you will ultimately go to school. It can be a good idea to apply to a mix of schools (including both colleges and universities), then consider the cost of attendance and compare financial aid packages offered by each one.

Attending one of your state’s public universities is often more affordable than going to a private college or university. However, that may not always be the case, depending on what scholarships and grants a college is able to offer.

A smart first step to figuring out how you’ll pay for a college or university is to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). This will let you know if you are eligible for any federal aid, which may include grants, scholarships, work-study, and federal student loans (which can be subsidized or unsubsidized). Grants and scholarships typically don’t have to be repaid, but loans generally do.

To fill in any gaps in funding, you may also want to explore private student loans. Private student loans aren’t based on need, and are available through banks, credit unions, and online lenders. To apply for a private student loan, you generally fill out a loan application either alone or with a cosigner. Rates vary depending on the lender but borrowers with excellent credit typically qualify for the lowest rates.

Just keep in mind that private student loans may not offer borrower protections, such as deferment and income-driven repayment plans, that come with federal student loans.

If you’ve exhausted all federal student aid options, no-fee private student loans from SoFi can help you pay for school. The online application process is easy, and you can see rates and terms in just minutes. Repayment plans are flexible, so you can find an option that works for your financial plan and budget.

Cover up to 100% of school-certified costs including tuition, books, supplies, room and board, and transportation with a private student loan from SoFi.

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