difference between college and university - feature

What’s the Difference Between College and University in the USA?

If you pursue postsecondary education in the United States, you’ll end up studying at a college or university (in most cases). The problem is the words “college” and “university” are both used as shorthand for higher education. In fact, you may not even know what the difference between the two are!

It doesn’t help that the way Canadians and Americans think of college and university is quite different. As we covered in our previous blog post, “What’s the Difference Between College and University in Canada?”, Canadian universities are where you’ll find degree programs, whereas colleges grant certificates and diplomas.

The system is a little different in the United States.

If you’re unsure what the difference between college and university are, the information below will help you better understand how higher education in the U.S. works.

Private vs. Public

Higher education in the USA works quite differently than in other developed countries. The U.S. government doesn’t control the education system. Instead, any college or university you attend will fall into one of two categories: private or public.

Private schools are controlled by independent bodies of trustees, while public schools are shared between local and state governments. In general, private schools are more expensive to attend than public because they lack government funding.

American higher education breaks down into the following main categories:

State College or University

difference between college and university - oregon state university
Sourced from Cappex.com

As the name implies, a state college/university is run by a state or local government. In fact, each of the 50 U.S. states has at least one state university. Many states also have multiple state colleges (which are different from universities, remember). These schools receive most of their funding from public funds.

It’s pretty easy to figure out which schools are state-run, as the majority bear the name of the state they’re in. For example, Oregon State University is in Oregon and the University of Utah is in Utah.

Private College or University

difference between college and university - Harvard University
Sourced from InterContinental Boston

Unlike state schools, private colleges and universities are privately-funded and not operated by the government. They are typically smaller than state schools and also have higher tuition, on average.

All of the famous “Ivy League” schools – Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Brown, Cornell, UPenn, Dartmouth, and Columbia – are private. Religious universities and colleges also privately funded, though they do welcome students of all religions and beliefs.

Community College

difference between college and university - Shoreline Community College
Sourced from Shoreline Community College

American community colleges are similar to Canada’s colleges, which provide technical training and diplomas to match shifting labour trends. A community college typically offers two-year associate degree programs. These programs fall into general education and are set up to allow students to either enter the work force directly or smoothly transfer to a four-year university or college to finish their bachelor’s degree.

Students will also find English as a Second Language (ESL) programs here, which will help prepare them for university-level course work. Community colleges are nonresidential and may be supported locally, regionally, or by the state government.

Where would I go for graduate studies?

The education system in the United States can seem a bit complicated. However, here’s an easy way to think of the difference between college and university:

  • A College offers undergraduate programs
  • A University offers both undergraduate and graduate programs

There are exceptions, of course. Some institutions still call themselves “colleges” even though they offer graduate programs (Dartmouth College, Boston College). Universities can also be made up of a collection of colleges. For example, Harvard College is Harvard University’s liberal arts college. In fact, Harvard is made up of over 10 graduate and professional schools, including Harvard Law School, Harvard Business School, and Harvard Medical School.

Research vs. Teaching Universities

difference between college and university - research

One final thing to keep in mind is that universities can be either primarily research or teaching institutions. While faculty time is divided between teaching and research at all universities, the balance is different depending on what university they work at.

Generally, large universities are based around research because they have the size and funding to have state-of-the-art equipment and facilities. The downside of research universities is that undergraduate classes are often large and taught by graduate teaching assistants rather than professors.

On the other hand, teaching universities are focused on, well, teaching. Most professors at these schools have full teaching loads and don’t have as much pressure to publish as their colleagues at research institutions. You’ll have to sacrifice facilities and other perks by attending these universities, but they’re a great choice if you value face-to-face time with your professors.

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