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What Is the Difference between a College and a University?

Tricia Christensen
Updated Mar 02, 2024
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The difference between a "college" and "university" can depend very much on where someone lives. In many cases in the US, colleges refer to schools that offer four-year advanced education only, and an institution which does not typically offer more than a bachelor’s degree. A university, however, is a school that offers postgraduate programs such as those resulting in a master's or doctoral degree. Colleges can also refer to the individual schools and departments within a larger institution. In other countries, "colleges" can refer to various levels of education, including secondary schools and accredited online colleges.

Terminology for Different School Levels

The terms "college" and "university" may be synonymous, or may be used as a way of granting greater stature to an institute of higher learning. In some areas there are multiple, public, degree-granting systems. This can include numerous community or junior colleges as well as technical or art schools that are often at the same level. Universities, then, are those schools that offer higher degrees beyond a two or four-year program.

Colleges in Traditional Settings

Traditionally, the term "college" applied to a part of a university. Large universities may be split into colleges or schools that offer different degrees. Deans or heads of these departments oversee them, but the university itself holds the ability to grant degrees. Most large universities also offer advanced programs resulting in doctoral and masters degrees.

Historical Context for Colleges

"College" was first used in the US because institutions established for higher education were initially quite small. They didn’t approach the grandeur of European, and particularly English, universities like Oxford. Men, at first only men, could attend some of the early schools like Harvard College, but could not get advanced doctorate degrees unless they studied abroad.

As colleges like Harvard grew, some changed their names to “university” to reflect that they offered advanced degrees and numerous smaller schools. Some other colleges, representing the oldest in the US, clung to the old name, even as they expanded and offered advanced degrees. This has created confusion within the US, however, as the two terms have become synonymous in some situations.

Alternative Uses in Various Countries

In some countries, a college might not even be an institute of higher learning. Regions like Hong Kong, New Zealand, South Africa, and Ireland often use "colleges" to refer to secondary schools. "College" in Canada tends to mean Junior or certificate schools that offer training in trades, rather than a liberal arts program. In France, they are often junior high or middle schools; while in the UK, the term "college" usually refers to a section of a larger university.

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Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen , Writer
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Practical Adult Insights contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.

Discussion Comments

By anon286045 — On Aug 19, 2012

@anon57408: Nursing is a Master of Science degree, not an MA.

By anon258651 — On Apr 02, 2012

College in UK is not what is university in US. It's the two years they do after middle school to get their A-levels. Also in Australia, college means the boarding house, not the university. So you can go to university but not college.

By anon130703 — On Nov 29, 2010

Just because California has 23 institutions of higher education doesn't mean they have the best university system in the country. Quantity does not equal quality.

By anon85777 — On May 21, 2010

A university doesn't have to give a PhD to be a university. As for Master of Arts vs Master of Science, I think someone answered that. One deals with the (in general) the arts vs areas more focused on science. There may be minor exceptions but that's generally the case.

By anon69020 — On Mar 05, 2010

what is the difference between a master of arts and a master of science? I know one focuses on practice and the other on research but which is which and can you explain to me more in depth?

By anon64228 — On Feb 05, 2010

so if we suggest that colleges in the UK offer masters degrees. i found a college that offers a master diploma and i am really confused. is it the same as a master degree?

By anon62990 — On Jan 29, 2010

then why is california so broke. Sounds like a bunch of idiot people to me, rather than people of a higher education.

By anon57408 — On Dec 22, 2009

Ummm...dude. A master of arts is in the arts (English, Fine Arts, History, Nursing, Humanities, Geography, Philosophy, Social Sciences or Theology mainly), whereas a master of science is in the natural sciences (physics, chemistry, biology, astronomy, etc), mathematics, sometimes economics, etc.

By anon46279 — On Sep 24, 2009

CSU are very commonly referred to as state colleges. From what i have gathered, it seems that UC actually offers higher education than a CSU, but your choice should really depend on what career you are trying to pursue.

By anon40286 — On Aug 07, 2009

Don't the terms college and university also connect to the size (population) of the school? I am aware of a few colleges in recent years that have changed their name from "College" to "University" and it seemes to be based on a steady increase in population. Is this the case or is there more involved?

By anon40156 — On Aug 06, 2009

I can't answer for California, but colleges in New York absolutely offer Masters of Science (MS) and Masters of Art(MA) degrees.

By anon26813 — On Feb 19, 2009

what is really the difference? they sound the same to me.

By anon24825 — On Jan 19, 2009

If it doesn't issue PhD degrees in Language, Math and Science then it is not a University. We should not be too hard on people who say they have a PhD when in actuality they only have a BS degree - Our institutions of higher learning have the same problem.

By anon20173 — On Oct 27, 2008

Nobody calls any of the CSU schools a college. That is where there is a U in the name! They are all universities, made up of smaller colleges (or schools) as noted in this article. They may be called state or something similar, but nobody uses college. With 23 CSU and 10 UC, California has the best higher education system in the country.

By anon6172 — On Dec 18, 2007

what is the difference between a master of arts and a master of science? I know one focuses on practice and the other on research but which is which and can you explain to me more in depth?

Thank you.

Tricia Christensen

Tricia Christensen


With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Practical Adult Insights contributor...
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