College vs University: 7 Key Differences

A college is a school with a fairly narrow academic emphasis, such as liberal arts or nursing. It may be independent or part of a university structure. A university is a larger academic institution that offers more diverse educational opportunities and a wider range of majors. Both colleges and universities may be public or private.

The differences between a college and a university start with size and scope. Colleges are smaller and narrower in focus, which provides smaller class sizes and more personal instruction, a cohesive student body and a sense of community. But colleges do not typically have as many resources in terms of libraries, laboratories and other education assistance. Universities are larger, provide more academic options, and many have an emphasis on research. But the education may feel impersonal on a large university campus. These are among the pros and cons of a college vs a university.

Colleges award associate degrees and bachelor’s degrees, and some now have master’s degree programs. Universities have bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees, and some award associate degrees too. 

What Is a College?

A college can be an independent institution or one of several schools within a university. When independent, colleges tend to be smaller than universities and have a more cohesive, less diverse student population. Most colleges are two-year schools including community colleges or 4-year colleges. Colleges may either be public schools or private institutions.

Colleges usually offer undergraduate degrees, both associates degrees and bachelor’s degrees. Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Science degrees are most common, but many colleges offer additional bachelor’s degrees such as a Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) or Bachelor of Business Administration (BBA).

The curriculum at a college is more narrow and focused in areas such as liberal arts, fine arts, nursing, vocational or technical training compared with the broad curriculum of a university. When colleges are part of a larger university, they have a range of emphases in both the arts and sciences.

What is a University?

Universities are large academic institutions that provide a wide spectrum of undergraduate and graduate programs including master’s degrees and doctoral degrees. Approximately 52% of postsecondary universities are public compared to 48% private nonprofit.

Universities are often composed of multiple smaller colleges, each having its own academic specialty. Common colleges within a university are colleges of liberal arts, engineering, nursing, public health, education, business, social work, music, theater and dance, architecture, art, law, and medicine. Colleges may be either undergraduate or graduate schools, or both. For example, the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor includes 14 undergraduate colleges and 18 graduate colleges.

Universities sometimes have multiple campuses. This is especially true of public universities such as the University of Wisconsin, which has 13 campuses.

Some schools, public and private, such as MIT, Penn, Stanford, Georgia Tech, Johns Hopkins, Michigan, Ohio State and Ivy League schools are called research universities because of the strong emphasis on graduate-level scholarship and research and development or R&D expenditures.

What Are the Differences Between Colleges and Universities?

The differences between colleges and universities start with the structure, size and scope of the schools’ programs, types of degrees offered, whether the schools are known for research, and in some cases, the number of campuses.

Colleges tend to be smaller and offer a more limited range of majors or programs than universities, which typically have many constituent schools within them. Most colleges offer 2-year associate degrees and 4-year bachelor’s degrees while universities mostly offer bachelor’s degrees, masters and doctoral degrees. Colleges are more likely than universities to have a student population drawn mainly from a narrow demographic such as historically black colleges and colleges with a religious orientation.

Colleges have a more cohesive student body with less diversity in student life than universities because there are fewer students and they are more likely to share similar interests than students on a university campus.

Universities are more likely to be known as research institutions than colleges. And many universities, especially those in public state university systems, have multiple campuses.

The distinctions between colleges and universities are starting to blur. This is primarily due to the perception that if a school is a university, it offers a better education and a more valuable degree for graduates seeking to get into graduate school or the job market.

Structure, Size and Scope

Colleges often focus on a limited number of related degree programs such as those that would fall under categories of liberal arts, engineering or arts and design. As a result, colleges often are smaller with fewer students in total enrollment than found at most universities. Class sizes are smaller and the instructor to student ratio at colleges is typically lower.

On the other hand, the structure of most universities includes multiple colleges or schools under the broad university organization. Each college within a university structure has a specific focus such as liberal arts, business, nursing, engineering or fine arts. Multiple colleges within a university also means a larger overall institution and more students enrolled in than in a college.

Degrees Offered

Most colleges offer only associate and bachelor’s degrees while universities offer bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees.

However this difference between colleges and universities is changing – some colleges now offer a limited range of master’s degrees. For example, Williams College Center for Development Economics offers a Master’s degree in Policy Economics, or MaPE.

Universities offer three or four tiers of degrees – some have associate degree programs. Most universities offer the other three tiers: bachelor’s, master’s and doctor’s degrees.


Universities are far more likely than colleges to have a strong emphasis on research.

In these university programs, students often engage in significant research labs and projects within their program major. Many universities dedicate a large amount of money to facilities, personnel and other expenditures related to research, typically funded by government or commercial sources.

Some colleges do engage in research, but on a smaller scale with less funding, facilities and other resources.


Universities are more likely than colleges to be staffed by tenured professors who work full-time in academia. These faculty are more likely to engage in research in addition to teaching, and they are often assisted in research efforts by graduate and undergraduate students.

At universities engaged in research, faculty are more likely than college faculty to have teaching assistants to teach undergraduate courses.

Colleges have more part-time instructors who are also employed in other occupations. This may provide a more “real world” perspective. When the college faculty are full-time and not engaged in research, they may have more time for teaching and direct interaction with students.

Demographic Focus

Universities have a more diverse student population and often include a large number of foreign students. Because of the size of most universities compared to colleges, there is little demographic cohesiveness.

While larger colleges, especially those with a national reputation, are fairly diverse and may include students from other countries, smaller colleges are less diverse. They are also more likely to have a demographically narrower student population. Examples of colleges with a cohesive population in terms of demographics are schools with a religious affiliation, historically black colleges and community colleges that draw heavily from a local community such as a county or region.

Student Life

The student body on college campuses tends to be closer-knit, providing students with a stronger sense of community.

By contrast, the student body on university campuses is more diverse in its interests and pursuits. As a result, student life is more varied with a greater number of activities and opportunities. This may allow students to make connections within a narrow niche or interest they have.

However, the diversity mitigates against an overall sense of community. As a result, many universities seek to foster community within the individual colleges that are part of the university structure.

Number of Campuses

Most colleges have one or very few campuses. An exception is some community college systems that have multiple campuses.

By comparison, university structures are often multiple campuses which may be very similar to one another or have a unique identity based on degree programs offered or demographics. These campuses may be geographically contiguous, such as the three campuses of Duke University, or they may be very nearby or many miles apart. Public universities are more likely than private universities to be multi campus institutions, while many private universities such as Princeton, Cornerstone, MIT and Stanford have one campus.

What Are the Overall Pros And Cons When Comparing College and University?

Comparing pros and cons of college vs university helps students decide which is the right learning environment for them.

The pros of college include smaller class sizes and lower faculty to student ratios, more classes taught by professors, a cohesive student body, and potentially a more affordable education. The network of graduates from a college is often very close-knit and willing to help future graduates with career opportunities. Colleges are often in smaller towns that some students prefer or consider safer.

The cons of a college compared to a university include fewer majors to choose from, less opportunity to gain experience in research, a less diverse student body, and fewer opportunities for graduate education without changing schools.

The pros of a university education include greater selection of majors, more research opportunities, larger and more specialized faculty, more extensive facilities such as libraries, labs and other educational resources, a diverse student population, a wider range of extracurricular activities, and more graduate school opportunities without changing schools. The network of graduates from most universities is larger and more extensive, which might produce more career support and opportunities.

The cons of a university include greater expense, larger class sizes with less personal instruction, classes taught by TA’s rather than professors, less community and a generally more impersonal learning environment.

What Are the Advantages of College When Compared to University?

Colleges offer the benefits of more personalized learning from professors rather than teaching assistants. And instructors at colleges are focused on teaching instead of spending their efforts on research. Colleges provide a more affordable education especially public colleges such as community colleges.

The student body is more cohesive at a college, and since most colleges are in smaller towns and rural areas, they offer a potentially safer environment than the large, urban settings of many universities.

What Are the Advantages of University When Compared to a College?

A university offers a wider range of degree programs and classes that also offer more educational depth than what’s available at most colleges. If a student decides to change their major, there is less likelihood that they will need to transfer schools.

The faculties at universities are more likely to be highly experienced in their field. Students have more opportunities to be involved in research projects, and the library and lab facilities, along with other educational resources, are usually superior at universities compared to colleges. Universities have large, strong alumni networks to provide connections and career support.

Outside of the classroom, campus life and activities are more extensive and diverse at universities.  

What Is a College Within a University?

A college within a university provides specialized education and training in an academic unit with a narrower educational focus. Common examples of colleges within a university are colleges of liberal arts, business, education, engineering, nursing or criminal justice under the larger university structure. Faculties within each college are experts within their academic discipline. Colleges may offer undergraduate or graduate degrees or both.

When applying to a university or before declaring a major, students might be required to apply for admission to the school of their choice within the university.

Each college within the university has its own identity that creates a sense of community within the larger university setting. Schools have varying degrees of administrative authority. This identity is characterized by unique leadership such as a dean of the school, a library, lab, dormitory or other resources of its own. In many universities, each school holds its own graduation ceremonies and award ceremonies in addition to the university-wide graduation. And the degree received is often awarded in both the school name and university name. 

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