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As students or their parents begin to explore their postsecondary education options, they may begin to
wonder about the difference between colleges and universities. Many people assume that college refers to a
private institution and a university refers to a state-funded school. Other people may think that a
university provides a better education than a college. In reality, the difference between a college and a
university is much more difficult to define.
What is a College?
A college is a smaller institution that typically offers undergraduate degrees. Some colleges, such as
community colleges and junior colleges, may offer only two-year degrees. Most colleges offer bachelor’s
degrees, and some colleges also have associate degrees.
Resource: 25 Best Value Colleges
If you are interested in learning more about the difference between a college, community college and
junior college, check out the U.S. Department of Education’s Federal Student Aid.
What is a University?
A university is an institution that offers undergraduate and graduate degrees. Universities offer
graduate programs leading to a master’s degree or a Ph.D. These institutions also may have a medical or
law school for students wishing to pursue professional degrees. Some universities offer special programs
where their students can earn both an undergraduate degree and a graduate degree in a reduced amount of
time. Generally, universities have a more diverse offering of classes and programs than a college because
of the larger number of enrolled students. For assistance in evaluating if a university is a better for
you than a college, check out our ranking of the 25 Best Value Universities.
Can Colleges Offer Graduate Degrees?
Sometimes, the line between college and university can be a little blurry. For example, The College of
William & Mary in Virginia is called a college, but they offer graduate degrees in business, law,
education and marine science. St. Joseph’s College in New York offers graduate degrees in education,
business, creative writing and more. Why are many institutions that offer graduate degrees called
colleges? Sometimes, the answer is tradition. Institutions with a long history of being called a college
risk upsetting students and alumni by changing their name. When Mt. Union College in Ohio proposed
changing their name to University of Mt. Union, angry alumni protested on social media.
Choosing the Right College or University
Many students ask if a university is better than a college. A college and university generally are
academic equals. Depending on the student’s needs, one type of institution may be a better choice. For
example, if a student wants to attend a school with a variety of programs and classes, then a university
may be a better choice. If a student values small class sizes and a closer relationship with professors,
then a college might be the best option. If you are a student considering getting a bachelor’s or graduate
degree, your school’s name is less important than whether or not the school is a good fit. Think about
what you want your college experience to be like, and choose the college or university that meets your
Related: 25 Most Affordable Colleges
25 Most Affordable Universities