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College vs. University: Understanding the Differences and Making the Right Choice

Examine the distinctions between college and university to make the right choice. Learn about academic offerings, campus activities, and more.

Temwa Namandwa

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Image illustrating the differences between college and university settings, highlighting various academic structures.

Raise your hand if you think college and University are the same thing. Don’t feel embarrassed; You’re not alone! Many people (young and old) make this mistake.

College and University are different, and knowing the differences is essential to picking the right institution. 

It’s crucial to pick the right institution because you don’t want to attend an educational establishment that doesn’t align with your academic goals and career aspirations. 

Whether you’re a recent high school graduate or a prospective international student pursuing a study abroad program, this college vs. university guide will help your school search. Scroll on to learn more!

In This Post:

Differences Between College and University
Pros and Cons of Attending College vs. University
Factors to Consider When Choosing Between College and University
Tips for Making the Right Choice

Differences Between College and University

Large brick building displaying 'QUT' University' sign

What is a College?

 A college is a higher education institution that offers two-year associate degrees and four-year Bachelor’s degree programs. 

Compared to universities, colleges are mostly smaller, with compact and laid-back campuses. Colleges are also often privately funded and don’t receive as much funding from the state.

As a result, they have specialized fields of study. For example, liberal arts degree programs focus on areas such as natural sciences, humanities, and languages. 

Did you also know that specialized colleges exist? Yes, there are several available to fit your academic needs.

For instance, you can decide to go to community colleges, where you can get two-year certificates or associate degree programs.

These programs are designed to prepare you to enroll in a four-year college or University to earn a Bachelor’s degree.

Academic programs available at Community Colleges include mathematics, graphic design, economics, history, English, and more.

Other examples of specialized colleges are Historically Black colleges for the African American community and vocational colleges where you can study in fields like plumbing, culinary arts, and more.

Community colleges are also great because they can prepare you for the workforce with practical skills by offering you professional certificates.

Colleges usually don’t offer many postgraduate programs (such as master’s and Ph.D.), and they have few research programs.

So, if you plan to pursue a master’s degree or research program, you should enroll in a University instead.

But hey, you could be lucky to find some graduate programs at some colleges during your search.

What is a University?

Now that you know what a college is, what is a university? Unlike colleges, a university offers undergraduate and postgraduate degrees to tons of students—I’m talking tens of thousands a semester.

(Fun fact: did you know Ohio State University has the third-largest enrollment in the US, with 67,772 students.) 

However, it is important to note that universities can be public or private institutions. Public universities take in a larger number of students compared to private universities, which are more selective.

For example, places like Yale and Princeton have a rigorous application process that only takes in a limited number of students compared to their public counterparts.

Another difference between colleges and universities is that universities usually have sizable campuses due to the large number of students.

Because of state funding, they also offer a wide variety of programs like master’s degrees, doctoral degrees, and advanced research programs. Universities like Stanford and MIT spend billions of dollars on their research programs.

Universities are also great because they provide specialized higher education in Law and medicine. So if you’re thinking of becoming a doctor or a lawyer, it would probably be best to apply to universities rather than colleges.

Related: Pro Tips for Writing a College Essay

 

Pros and Cons of Attending College vs. University

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To really decide whether to pick college or University, you need to know the benefits and downsides of both.

This will help you make a sound decision about which institution to choose and ultimately guarantee your journey to academic excellence. 

Pros of College

• Niche-Specific Learning

As mentioned earlier, colleges offer specialized study areas. For example, vocational training or specific career fields like fine arts. This is excellent for equipping you with the best. 

• Personalized Learning

Colleges have smaller classes, so you will enjoy a personalized and intimate experience. You will interact more with your lecturer by participating in discussions and getting assistance from your faculty.

For example, you can get good recommendations about internships and study materials. Plus, having a small class means getting to know your classmates personally. 

Who knows? You could create a cool friend group to bounce ideas together about startup ideas, kind of like what the founders of Facebook, Snapchat, and Google did.

• More Time to Consider Bachelor’s Degree Options

If you pursue a two-year associate degree program, you will have time to consider what Bachelor’s degree options to enroll in.

This is great because, by the time you finish your associate degree, you will better understand higher education than you did when you graduated high school.

You will have a developed mind to make informed decisions about your future and career goals.

• Teaching is Less Focused on Research

Unlike Universities, colleges focus on undergraduate teaching rather than research efforts. This will provide a better learning experience as you enjoy different teaching methods to enhance your studies.

• Community College is More Affordable

If you can’t afford to attend University, don’t worry—there are still educational opportunities for you.

Consider going to a community college! It would be a great choice because the tuition costs a fraction of the price of a four-year university.

 

Cons of College

• Small Colleges Lack Diversity

If you’re an international student, enrolling in a college might not be suitable for you as you may experience some challenges.

Colleges are small and usually don’t have as many international students compared to universities.

This lack of cultural diversity can make it hard for international students to fit in close-knit communities. As a result, colleges will have a few resources dedicated to helping you.

For instance, they may not have an international orientation or a welcome week to help you settle in, language programs, international student cultural centers, and international student advisors/ offices.

• Two-year Colleges can be Limited Due to a Small Curriculum,  Compared to Universities

You may not get a wide range of academic programs. While they do offer specialized study areas, it will be hard for you to find a wide range of academic disciplines, in-depth studies, and research-specific areas.

• Limited Facilities

The downside of going to colleges over universities is that you might not enjoy as many facilities, such as large libraries, advanced laboratories, recreational facilities, and classroom spaces.

Less funding can also affect the maintenance of infrastructure and equipment; some college facilities could be outdated. So campus life would be as great.

Universities, on the other hand, get substantial funding. This means you can access up-to-date facilities and resources such as better housing and dining, recreational centers, advanced labs, museums, and more.

• Less Funding for Financial Aid

If you’re thinking of enrolling in a small liberal arts college, keep in mind that they do not offer a lot of financial aid.

So, if you were hoping to get some financial assistance, it may be challenging to find one that provides a substantial amount of financial support/

 

Pros of University

• State-of-the-Art Facilities

What’s excellent about universities is that they offer an impressive array of academic facilities.

These include large libraries with well-stocked books from all over the world, incredible research facilities to enhance your education in scientific fields, and recreational centers like swimming pools and gyms to stay healthy and fit.

• Diversity & Inclusion

One of the many upsides of attending a university as an international student is that you will be introduced to international student-friendly facilities.

Universities often host international orientation week, where you can mingle with other foreign students and feel integrated into the school.

Universities also offer international student offices to help students navigate their new life abroad (such as arranging accommodation). 

Another great offering universities have for foreign students is English language programs.

If English is your second language and you want to go to a university in the United States, you will find language centers to assist you. 

I found these facilities helpful when I was an international student in Australia. Being in a foreign country so far away from Malawi (my home country) was overwhelming and tricky, so having university staff willing to assist me improve my experience!

Plus, since the university had many international students, finding other international students from Africa with whom I could connect was easy.

• Prestige

Universities typically have an excellent reputation for being prestigious for outstanding academic excellence.

So, gaining a degree from a university can look good on your CV and may increase your chances of getting noticed by big companies.

For example, graduating from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology can help you improve your chances of working at big tech companies like Open AI or Meta.

• Great Selection of Study Programs

There is a broad array of undergraduate and postgraduate degrees offered. In contrast, in colleges, you can’t find master’s or Ph.D. programs. 

Plus, universities offer qualifications in professional subjects like Law and medicine. 

• Highly Reputable Professors

The benefit of universities is that they attract specialized professors and researchers, so you will be taught by top scholars who are great at creating a rich learning experience. 

Cons of University

• Expensive

While universities’ facilities and campus life are impressive, the downside is that they are pricey. You will most likely have to take a student loan to afford the tuition fees, books, and accommodation.

The average cost of living in Australia is $20,000 a year, and for an international student, it is a steep price.

Even though I was getting maintenance money from my parents, I still found that my money was running out quickly because everything was so expensive.

• Competitive

Tens of thousands of students are trying to enroll in University, so getting a place at your dream university can be challenging.

The application process gets competitive, so you must go above and beyond to stand out. For example, you need to have perfect grades, demonstrate leadership skills, and extracurricular activities like sports.

•Classroom Availability Limits

Universities tend to have a large number of students, and because of this, you may face limited faculty and classrooms. So you would need to register for a course quickly before it gets filled.

• Less Personalized Learning Experience in Classrooms

Since universities have many students in classrooms, you will not get the hands-on learning experience that you would get at a college.

This can make learning less enjoyable as you can’t interact much with your professor or connect with your classmates. 

Related: What to Do When Bored in Class: 120+ Productive and Entertaining Ideas

Factors to Consider When Choosing Between College and University

Tall columns of a building surrounded by lush palm trees.

Cost/ finances: The first and most important consideration is the cost of the institution. Research the tuition fees for your desired courses. Calculate the cost of accommodation, books, and more. 

Courses: The second step is to explore the institutions’ courses and programs. This is important because you want to see whether or not the schools offer the courses you wish to pursue.

Campus life/ environment: You won’t spend your entire time in classrooms; there will be times when you want to chill with your friends. So, it’s essential to see campus life at these educational institutions. Do they have fun social events? Multicultural festivals?

• Extracurricular activities: Extracurricular activities are a big part of college life. Look for a school that can help you take part in activities to help you become an all-rounder student. includes performing arts groups, volunteer/ charity groups, and student government clubs.

• Facilities: The next thing to consider is the facilities. Do the schools have laboratories, libraries, study spaces, academic advising centers, art studios, and research institutes to help you excel in higher education?

• Location: The location of the schools can determine your educational experience. For example, if the college or University is located in an urban area, you will have a higher chance of finding internships and part-time jobs because organizations are close to your school.

My school’s proximity to Melbourne CBD allowed me to apply for internships at big businesses, which was helpful when I had to take industry placements to complete my modules.

Besides the practical benefits, there were many excellent shopping facilities, cafes, and tourist attractions to explore.

It was fun to try Starbucks and finally go to Forever21 (when it was still cool to shop there in 2015) because they were unavailable in my home country.

• Size: Do you want to attend a school with a sizable campus and many students to mingle with? Or do you want to attend a small college for personalized learning? Consider these factors.

Related: Good Habits for Students-The Complete Guide for Students to Thrive in School

 

Tips for Making the Right Choice

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• Budget

You have to create a college budget. Evaluating the cost of universities and colleges is crucial to see how they align with your budget.

You don’t want to be unrealistic and select a university that will put you in an awkward financial position.

• Career Goals

The next piece of advice is to reflect on your career aspirations. What is your dream job?

What is your dream company? Asking yourself these questions will help you determine which courses you can take to achieve those goals.

• Accreditation

It’s important to ensure that the college or University you want to enroll in is accredited. This will ensure that the school meets high academic standards.

Additionally, an accredited school will help you be eligible for financial aid. When I was looking for fashion degrees, I always looked for degrees that were accredited by fashion boards.

• Think about where you want to live before you graduate

This is a piece of advice I wish someone told me before going to university. It’s important to consider where you want to live after graduation.

If you’re an international student pursuing higher education or a citizen moving to a new state and want to live permanently in that location, look at the skill shortages in the area.

Go to the government labor website and see what skills are needed. Based on that list, pick a school offering a program to equip you with the right qualifications to help you find jobs there.

Frequently Asked Questions

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• How do Americans perceive liberal arts colleges compared to universities?

Liberal arts colleges are popular choices for Americans over universities because of their low cost, flexibility, small community, and holistic admission processes.

• Are there distinctions between pursuing the same program at a college versus a university, even if both lead to the same degree?

Yes, for example, a college may not have the same array of facilities, resources, and connections as a university.

So, you might miss out on an advanced learning experience for a certain program.

For example, if you’re doing a marketing degree, a university may have connections with big industry leaders like Nike where students can pursue internships or co-op placements. However, a small college may not have that type of access.

• Are colleges and universities the same in America?

No, colleges and universities are not the same. Colleges offer two-year associate degrees and/or four-year Bachelor’s degree programs.

They are smaller in size, whereas universities offer both undergraduate and postgraduate degrees to tens of thousands of students.

Deciding between college and University can be confusing, especially when you don’t know the difference between the two.

Thankfully, now you know the different programs and structures offered at both. Knowing these differences will help you pick the right educational institution that aligns with your career goals.

So use this guide to find a school that meets your needs.

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