What Is the Difference Between a College and a University?

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The distinction between a college and a university in the United States may not always be obvious, particularly to students from other regions of the world. The term “college” does not have the same meaning in every country, which might be confusing for potential overseas students who want to study in the United States.

“In Spanish, ‘colegio’ means high school,” explains George DaPonte, director of international admissions at the University of Tampa in Florida.

Admissions experts claim that for this and other reasons, some prospective students may overlook US colleges with the word “college” rather than “university” in their name. Students may miss out on a school that may have been a wonderful fit if they do so.

While some four-year postsecondary schools in the United States use the term “college” and others use the term “university,” both types provide undergraduate degrees. Here are some more considerations to have in mind when considering schools and universities in the United States.

What Is a College?

What is the Difference Between College and University? - CollegeRank.net

According to Johanna Fishbein, director of college and university counseling at The American School in Switzerland (TASIS), schools featuring the word “college” in their name are often smaller institutions that focus on undergraduate education. There are a few exceptions to this rule, thus it is not a hard and fast rule.

Some universities, known as liberal arts colleges, provide students with an education in a variety of academic fields rather than having them specialize early in one subject.

“Although liberal arts colleges exist in other countries, such as Europe, they are much less common and don’t always include the residential community living experiences that you find at American liberal arts schools,” says Hannah Kim, associate director of international admission at Franklin & Marshall College in Pennsylvania.

Prospective students may also wrongly believe that liberal arts colleges primarily focus on the humanities, according to admissions experts. However, several of these schools also offer degrees in science.

Another prevalent fallacy is that colleges with the word “college” in their name don’t provide many opportunities for research, according to Fishbein.

However, according to Kim, 65% of Franklin & Marshall students participate in research before graduating.

A community college is another sort of school in the United States with the word “college” in its name. These are two-year institutions that award associate degrees as well as career-related certificates. The enrollment size of community colleges varies; some are quite large, despite the word “college” in their name.

Some students start at a community college and subsequently transfer to a four-year institution or university to finish their bachelor’s degree.

What Is a University?

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Many schools with the word “university” in their name are larger institutions with a wide range of undergraduate and graduate degree programs.

Public universities are among the largest colleges, with tens of thousands of students enrolled at times. These institutions are also deeply committed to conducting research.

According to Chelsea Keeney, director of international student recruitment, sponsored students, and exchanges at the University of Minnesota—Twin Cities, it is a common misperception that all colleges with the word “university” in their name are large.

Some are relatively small, such as Alaska Pacific University, which has approximately 300 undergraduate students, according to U.S. News data.

Furthermore, not all universities are public. Private universities include numerous Ivy League institutions, such as Princeton University in New Jersey.

According to Keeney, the fact that huge institutions are generally made up of smaller divisions called colleges adds to the uncertainty for international students. Each of these universities specializes in a certain academic field, such as business, engineering, or social work.

And liberal arts education is not limited to tiny colleges. Some colleges require undergraduates to complete a core curriculum, which consists of a variety of general education courses before focusing on their major.

Large universities, by definition, provide a broader range of research opportunities than small ones. “But undergraduate students may need to compete with graduate students for resources and opportunities,” Fishbein said.

Which Type of School Is Right for You?

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“The size of the institution is a good place to start researching.” “Many colleges in the United States place an emphasis on small faculty-to-student ratios,” Kim explains.

(U.S. News provides a variety of college rankings and school profiles where students may access up-to-date data about each college or university to help them make an informed decision.)

According to Kim, most liberal arts universities feature small class sizes that emphasize group discussions and class involvement over bigger lecture-style sessions. Franklin & Marshall College, she writes, has a 10:1 faculty-to-student ratio and an average class size of roughly 17 students, “which creates a close-knit community where students are encouraged to personalize their education experience.”

She suggests that researching the learning environment type at a certain university is a smart place to start.

“It can also be a good idea to apply to a variety of types of institutions, since you may be surprised by the options and opportunities available that you hadn’t previously considered,” Kim said.

Making an informed decision, according to DaPonte, can include looking at schools’ social media sites, reading testimonials from existing students, and seeking advice from family, friends, and a trusted college counselor. He also suggests visiting an interesting campus, sitting in on a class, and conversing with existing students in the dining hall or quad.

Kenney advises students to focused on programmatic offerings, campus life, prices, scholarships, outcomes, research spending, and connections with present students rather than college vs. university.

“For the best fit of a new student, I recommend reflection on the individual priorities,” Keeney said.

These can include whether the school offers undergraduates faculty-led research opportunities, extensive study abroad chances, and specific degree programs. It also entails considering location and closeness to home.

“These attributes are not tied to college vs. university, but rather a reflection on a unique student preference,” Keeney said.


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