Last Updated on August 11, 2022 by David Shaw
There must be times you hear the word college and unversities being used around differently by everyone. Some people will even tell you they mean the same thing, while there are also others who say the opposite. So what really are the differences between a university and college? And which term is the correct one?
In the US and Canada, college and university are used interchangeably but they have slightly different meanings. Many big universities comprise of different colleges, while there are also 2-year academic institutions called community colleges that are not fully considered universities.
Even though the term ‘college’ and ‘university’ are often used interchangeably in the US and Canada, it is actually important to know the difference so that you can plan a more specific higher learning path to better suit you. As we dive into the article, bear in mind we won’t use the term ‘university’ and ‘college’ interchangeably as we explain the differences.
Universities Have More Robust Degree Programs and Research Projects
There are generally 2 kinds of universities which are less commonly referred to as ‘teaching’ and ‘research’ universities. Very much like 2-year colleges, teaching universities make full-time faculties emphasize more on teaching whereas most faculties in research universties focus more of their time on research projects aside from just delivering lectures.
A University Offers Undergraduate and Graduate Study Programs
An undergraduate program simply refers to a Bachelor’s Degree program, and further education level beyond that is considered a graduate study program.
4-year universities often offer special Master’s Programs that are shorter in duration for their undergraduate students, and sometimes even offer students to study a Doctorate program (Ph.D.) without a Master’s Degree (MD).
What Is a 4-Year University?
The term ‘4-year university’ is more commonly used in the context when comparing 2-year colleges to 4-year universities.
Both teaching and research universities are usually regarded as 4-year universities since they offer undergraduate study programs. In short, when most people mention a university, they are likely referring to a 4-year university.
For a more in-depth explanation of what a 4-year university is, check out this article on Is 4-Year University Similar to Other Universities? Guide and Explanations
Large Universities Have Seperate College Departments
When we say a university is large if it has more than 10,000 students enrolled at any given point. Universities at the middle or large scale usually invest some amount of funding into separate college departments of their own discipline, including dedicated research facilities where scientists and professors can carry out work.
With large universities, you’ll often see they have seperate college divisions to handle a specific field of study, where they have colleges like the College of Liberal Arts, College of Engineering, Colleges of Math, Sciences, and Business and such.
In the case of research, many top universities in the world that are heavily research-focused even have their own research facilities, equipped and operated with industry-leading technologies and experts.
For example, the Jet Propulsion Labatorary (JPL) is a research facility established through the partnership of NASA and California Institute of Technology (Caltech). Over the years, JPL have contributed and worked on stellar projects like the Hubble Telescope, Curiosity rover probing planet Mars, and many more.
Difference Between ‘College Departments’ and ‘2-Year Colleges’
The word ‘college’ is normally used to address 2 kinds of situations—a college department, also commonly known as a ‘school’ in a university, or just a standalone 2-year academic institution.
In big and well-known universities, you will see colleges named after a specific field or study, or someone’s name. For some, they might use the word ‘school’ instead of ‘college’ like the Haas School of Business in the University of California, Berkeley, or Yale Law School for example.
In another case, if a person were to use the word ‘college’ without any further context, they might be referring to either a 4-year university or a 2-year college.
Depending on the applicability, a person might say they attend Yale Law School, which means they study law at Yale University. However, if a person tells you they’re attending college, you might want them to clarify if you think they’re referring to a 2-year college instead of a 4-year university.
What Are the Types of 2-Year Colleges Out There?
As we briefly mentioned above, most community colleges across the US make use of the full-time faculties to prioritize on teaching rather than research work. Given that there are over 1,500 2-year colleges in the US, it is definitely important to know the difference between a college and university.
1. Community College
A community college is essentially a 2-year academic institution people attend after high school, in which you can obtain an Associate’s Degree for work or use it to transfer to a 4-year university. Community colleges are very popular across states like California, Texas, North Carolina, Illinois, and New York, and they’re in place for different purposes compared to 4-year universities.
2. Vocational/Technical College
Nowadays, we see lesser vocational or technical colleges are typically the same thing. Vocational colleges, like the definition of the word ‘vocation’, is steered towards preparing individuals to be employed with requisite skill directly for work in a short timeframe without a Bachelor’s Degree.
Since they mostly only offer study programs shorter than 4 years, much like community colleges, they offer similar accreditation to an Associate’s Degree to prepare you for a specific technical expertise and experience in certain industries.
Although today, you will see many good community colleges across the US offering similar courses that can achieve the same things a vocational or technical college is meant to do.
Why do some people choose college over universities?
Many students would choose the 2-year colleges over 4-year universities for mainly 2 reasons—lower cost of tuition, and finding employment more quickly. On top of that, classes offered at community colleges can also be easier compared to those in universities, which adds another good point to why a person would want to start their higher learning journey in college.
Conveniently, we’ve compiled a list of Best Easy-A Classes to Boost Your GPA in College in this article.
Another popular reason why students choose to attend community colleges is that they want to transfer to a 4-year university for a better chance of admission. To understand this further, more on that will be explained below.
Common Pathways Students Follow in Higher Learning Pathways
There are essentially 3 paths of higher learning to choose from after completing high school:
- Enroll in a 2-year college > Get an Associate’s Degree > Work in a related field
- Enroll in a 2-year college > Get an Associate’s Degree > Transfer to 4-year universities
- Enroll in a 4-year university > Get a Bachelor’s Degree > Work in a related field
Depending on which path you take, all 3 will definitely have a very different experience. Given that this is also likely a once-in-a-lifetime decision, choosing the right path can have very lead to very different outcomes.
The College and University Pathways Yield Difference Experiences
Let’s use part 2 and 3 in the above example, since the outcome of path 1 will explain itself through the following explanations. To keep things simple, I will summarize a little about the general experiences of navigating college for these 2 paths besides the course curriculums.
– Choosing the 2-year college pathway
Choosing the first 2 years of your undergraduate experience in a community college typically gives you more opportunities to learn on your own, since it forces you to navigate through people and society more independently. Social circles will be very spread out and more secluded since there are usually no dormitories to promote a tight sense of community and friendship among freshmen and sophomores.
– Choosing the 4-year university pathway
As a start, making friends is significantly easier if you start out as a freshman in university since your peers will carry out daily activities in the same space around the dormitory and campus. Universities often also have better resources and support for many aspects of welfare and student success.
And the drawback to such an accommodating and sheltered environment will definitely result in you becoming less independent.
Which Path Is for You? And My Personal Experience
I personally chose path 2, and although my overall experiences were positive, I wished making friends were easier and more resources were offered during my first 2 years at a community college. However, a huge part of my earlier experiences has to do with my introverted character. I believe if I simply set aside time and effort to search, and put ourselves out there to meet more people, I could’ve also made the first 2 years of experience at a community college very positive.
Resource and quality of lecture wise, my community college were actually not that far off compared to most mid-tier universities considering it was among the top community college known for its high transfer and admission rates into 4-year universities.
I would also say the choice of attending a good community college is also crucial to ensure you’ll be exposed to high-quality lectures, assistance, connections, and resources to more well-known institutions if they have a strong outreach faculty team.