Difference Between Universities and Colleges

Updated on 05 May, 2023

upGrad Abroad Team

upGrad Abroad Team

upGrad abroad Editorial Team

College and university are two terms that most students use randomly to indicate institutions for higher education. We often confuse one with another. Knowing the differences between universities and colleges is thus essential. Here is a brief look into the two terms and what they mean.

What is a College?

Colleges are educational institutions with numerous diploma and degree courses for higher education. They offer these courses only in specific disciplines or subjects. The main difference is that multiple colleges can be part of a university.

Some colleges are independent and do not have any university affiliation. This number is small across the world. Colleges are smaller in comparison to universities and are either public or privately owned. Colleges may offer full-time degrees or associate and part-time degrees as is the case with community colleges in the USA. 

The word college comes from the Roman word, ‘Collegium’. The term secondary school is also used to denote college in many countries. Colleges usually offer diploma degrees at the undergraduate level, and a few provide associate degrees too.

Colleges usually have fewer courses and research options than universities. Their fees may be more affordable as a result. The curriculum offered by colleges has a practical approach, which prepares individuals for the job market, and the focus would be on developing a particular skill set. For instance, a student pursuing electronics engineering will study only subjects related to the domain and not things related to the wider stream. 

Pros of Colleges

  • Focused on undergraduate teaching

The courses are more focused on undergraduate teaching and less on research efforts. Hence, they develop a particular skill of the student, which makes them ready for the job market. Students with specific interests have more curriculum specialization. 

  • Comparatively lower tuition costs

The tuition fees of a community college are much lower than a four-year university degree, making it a much more affordable option to study at a college.

  • More time to consider after-degree completion options

Students enrolled in a two-year degree program at a college complete their general education requirements much before a four-year degree. Hence, they have more time to consider career options after completing the degree. 

  • Small class size

While comparing colleges and universities, in the former, students are more likely to get personalized instruction and assistance from academic advisors and professors due to the small class sizes. 

Cons of Colleges

Restricted to a narrow curriculum

The variety of courses and programs offered at two-year colleges are quite limited, and there is hardly any access to more advanced degrees. 

  • Lack of diversity

There are often issues regarding the lack of diversity and struggles related to students’ engagement in the classroom in small community colleges. 

  • Fewer resources and facilities

Usually, small colleges have fewer resources and facilities for conducting research. Not just that, unlike large universities, the faculty at colleges are less likely to be leading researchers in the fields. 

  • Less financial aid

Small, private liberal arts colleges offering bachelor’s degrees might tend to offer less financial aid to students, thereby making it costlier than studying at a university.

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What is a University?

A university is an educational institution that offers courses in many disciplines and often has multiple affiliated colleges in its kitty. They also offer associate, bachelor’s, master’s, and doctorate degrees along with undergraduate/graduate diplomas and certifications. Universities that are approved or recognized by the governments in their respective countries can award degrees to students.

There are public, private, and deemed universities throughout the world. They usually have larger campuses with departments covering various streams. Universities have multiple schools within the campus with several faculties, research labs, and more. Fees are often higher at universities owing to the sheer volume of courses and facilities available for students. They also offer professional degrees and special programs for students.

The course curriculum offered by a university has a research-based approach that prepares graduates to gain knowledge related to all branches of a particular field. For instance, a student pursuing a degree in electronics engineering could learn everything about the domain – embedded systems, microprocessors, power engineering, instrumentation, etc. 

Pros of Universities

  • Access to advanced degrees

Students get to choose from a vast array of programs and course offerings that are in accordance with their passion, skills, and career path. 

  • More diverse community of students

One of the major differences between universities and colleges is that there are diverse campuses in universities, thereby allowing students to work in collaboration with classmates, faculty, and staff belonging to different backgrounds.

  • Classes taken by reputed professors

The faculty at universities are more likely to be highly reputable professors in the fields of research, offering a dynamic and rich learning experience.  

  • Host of research opportunities and facilities

Since the curriculum at a university is more research-oriented, there are more research facilities available for students, opening doors to more lucrative professional opportunities. 

Cons of Universities

  • Less focus on personalized teaching

Owing to the large class sizes in universities, and more focus on research, professors and advisors are not able to dedicate personalized attention to students. 

  • Higher costs involved

The total cost of attending a four-year university is often higher, which includes tuition fees, accommodation, and expenses incurred on books.

  • Tough competition 

There is considerable competition among students to bag a seat at a renowned public university. Therefore, even before a student fills up the form, the seats are full.

  • Some students might feel lost or isolated

The fact that universities have large, bustling communities, while some might enjoy it, others might feel secluded and lost in a classroom having dozens of students. 

Difference between Universities and Colleges

The following table will help students understand the difference between universities and colleges.

Parameter of comparisonColleges Universities 
MeaningDerived from the Roman word, ‘Collegium’, it is an educational institution offering degrees and diploma courses to the students. Universities offer courses in many disciplines across associate, bachelor’s, master’s, and doctorate levels. 
AffiliationColleges are either run by an autonomous body or have their affiliation with a particular university.Universities have their own affiliation and do not require it from any other university. 
Scope of courses offeredColleges offer limited courses, and their scope is narrow. Universities offer a vast variety of courses, and their scope is wide. 
Research programThe programs offered by colleges are practical-based and are one of the most relevant routes to employment.The programs offered by universities are research-based, offering a holistic understanding of the wider subject area. 
Students enrolledLess, due to lesser options in coursesRelatively higher than colleges
Head of the institutionDean or DirectorVice-Chancellor
Campus sizeSmaller campus and size Bigger campus with multiple affiliated colleges and huge campuses 
CoursesMostly limited to diploma or undergraduate courses Courses include everything from graduate and postgraduate to doctoral programs 
FeesOwing to lesser space and infrastructure, fees are more affordable Fees are higher owing to a plethora of facilities and course options 

Types of Universities

Public universities

These are state-affiliated universities which operate with the aid of taxes received from the state government. At times, public universities are a part of the state university system, operating with shared management and administration in different states separately. In public universities, most of the courses and degrees are offered at various post-secondary levels, and the tuition fees for international students are comparatively higher than that of domestic students. However, the tuition fees for international students at public universities are much lower than at private universities. 

Private universities

Private universities do not receive sponsorship from the government, rather are funded by alumni donations, faculty research grants, and tuition fees. The aid is received through government student loans and grants and favorable tax considerations. However, the tuition fees for both international and domestic students are the same, but it is slightly higher than public universities. 

Ivy League universities

This is the most famous group of universities in the USA, which was formed initially with eight private universities. These are the highly regarded universities that were formed in 1954 based on their common interest in sports, and strengthen the athletic ties between member colleges in the Northeast region of the US. . The member universities of Ivy league include:

  • Harvard University
  • Columbia University
  • Yale University
  • Princeton University
  • University of Pennsylvania
  • Cornell University
  • Dartmouth College
  • Brown College

Russell Group universities

These are the top 24 British research universities that often draw a comparison to the US Ivy League institutions. The member universities of the Russell Group enjoy two-thirds of all research grant funding from the government. Here are some of the Russell Group universities in the UK. 

University of Applied Sciences

Universities of Applied Sciences in Germany impart practical-based teaching to students along with basic theoretical knowledge on the particular subject in bachelor’s and master’s degrees. To complete the course, students get the opportunity to take up internships and work at various companies and gain hands-on experience in various fields of business and engineering. 

University of Art, Film, and Music

These institutions specialize in offering talent-based learning in art, music, and other creative subjects across bachelor’s, master’s, doctorate, and other artistic degrees. Students are required to create their portfolios in order to receive acceptance into German art colleges. They must know German since most courses are taught in German. However, there are a few English-taught courses. 

Types of Colleges

Technical schools/colleges

These institutions specialize in offering science, engineering, and research courses and are mostly opted for by students having a strong background in mathematics and science. Some of the technical colleges include California Polytechnic Institute, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Virginia Tech, and Georgia Institute of Technology. 

Liberal arts colleges

The liberal arts college focuses on laying a strong foundation in undergraduate courses in the humanities, social science, and science streams. The public or private institutions have smaller class sizes, thereby setting a high academic standard for students by providing individual attention. 

Community colleges

Community colleges offer two-year Associate degrees so that students can complete their bachelor’s degree from a different college or university upon receiving the degree. Undergraduate students studying at community colleges can earn academic credits, which helps them bag a bachelor’s degree. It is comparatively inexpensive than a full-fledged four-year degree. There is no facility for on-campus accommodation and hardly any scope for student activities. They often offer technical and vocational programs with close links to employers in the local community.

Difference between colleges and universities in different countries

Here are some footnotes on how the two words often overlap and change their meanings across countries. ‘College’ is not used in the same manner in countries like the USA, UK, Australia, Ireland, and Canada.

a) The word ‘college’ is a synonym of the term university in the US and is also used interchangeably. 

b) Universities may often have multiple ‘schools’ at varying levels and in diverse academic disciplines. These ‘schools’ are nothing but colleges.

c) The term ‘college’ generally means vocational, artistic, technical, and scientific tertiary education in Canada.

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d) Canadians also use the term ‘university college’ for colleges that aren’t independent like universities.

e) Australians use ‘college’ to mean secondary education. 

f) Ireland requires registration in a college to complete a high school education. It is the same in Canada, Australia, South Africa, and New Zealand.

g) Colleges in the UK are schools within a university that can’t award degrees. Colleges can even mean facilities or accommodations in a university. 

h) Some colleges like King’s College (part of the University of London) also offer high school education along with certificate and diploma courses. 

i) Imperial College in London provides higher education ranging from bachelor’s degrees to Ph.D. programs, despite being called a college.

j)Colleges in Australia or Canada will refer to high school study institutions. The United Kingdom may have either of the two scenarios.

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Frequently Asked Questions

What is the difference between an institute and a university?

In the comparison between institute vs university, the major difference lies in the courses offered. While an institute offers learner-specific skills, a university specializes in higher education. University is the highest learning institution at the tertiary level, whereas an institute offers a mid-level learning center. While universities have self-governing bodies, an institute is managed by the Board of Directors through the Ministry of Education. 

What is a Liberal Arts College?

Liberal Arts College offers four-year undergraduate degrees emphasising humanities, social sciences, and sciences. The curriculum is designed to cover a wide area of study  in smaller class sizes.

What is a Community College?

A community college in the USA provides traditional academic classes for two years to enable transfer to a four-year college or university. It is a higher education institution that generally serves its surrounding communities, and is well-known for offering community programs like resume help for job seekers.  

What is Public University?

These are some of the most popular universities in the USA, UK, Canada, and Germany, which operate through the  financial aid received from the government. These are generally larger than private universities, and the tuition fee is comparatively cheaper. 

What is a Private University?

Unlike public universities, private universities are funded by their endowment funds and the tuition fees received from the students. Tuition fees at private universities are comparatively higher than public universities.

upGrad Abroad Team

upGrad abroad Editorial Team

We are a dedicated team of study-abroad experts, ensuring intensive research and comprehensive information in each of our blogs. With every piece written, we aim at simplifying the overseas education process for all. Our diverse experience as journalists, content writers, editors, content strategists, and marketers helps create the most relevant and authentic blogs for our readers.

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