What Is the Difference Between a College and a University?

You'll likely consider yourself a 'college student' no matter what type of higher learning institution you attend. And even though this usage is perfectly acceptable, it's important to note that colleges and universities have several differences that could affect which type of school you choose.

Colleges & Universities Overview

There is a lot of overlap when describing colleges and universities, and the two terms are often used interchangeably. They are, however, two different entities with entirely different definitions. Several factors play a role in determining whether a school is a college or university. One such factor is specialization; colleges normally offer degrees that provide a general understanding of the fundamentals of a field, while students at universities select a specialized field and study it intensely. Both types of institution have various benefits and disadvantages, so students should carefully research a school before deciding which program is the best fit.

Important Facts About Colleges & Universities

Institution TypeCollegeUniversity
Prerequisites High school diploma or equivalent High school diploma or equivalent; graduate programs may require undergrad degree and/or work experience
Online Availability Fully online Fully online
Degree Levels Certificate, associate's, bachelor's Bachelor's, master's, doctoral
Degree Fields of Study General science, English, accounting Industrial engineering, history, astronomy

Differences between Colleges & Universities


The key difference between a college and a university is that colleges only offer undergraduate programs, mostly in the form of 2-year associate's degrees. These degrees can often be used to transfer to a 4-year school. For example, a student interested in astronomy might attend a community college to pursue an associate's degree in general science and learn basic concepts, then transfer to a university to receive more concentrated instruction through courses specifically devoted to astronomy.

A 4-year college might offer certificate, associate, and/or bachelor's degree programs, while community and technical colleges typically offer programs focused on specific trades. Community colleges generally offer certificates and associate degrees and, occasionally, bachelor's degrees. Technical colleges usually offer only certificates and/or associate degrees. Generally, colleges are much smaller than universities, although the size of an institution does not necessarily determine its status. Northern Virginia Community College, for example, has over 75,000 students across several locations.


Universities, meanwhile, offer students graduate degrees in addition to undergraduate degrees. Two-year undergraduate degrees are very rare at universities; some programs can be completed in two years, but these are usually at the graduate level. Larger universities are often divided into colleges and departments based on academic subject. For example, you might attend the University of Michigan, and be enrolled as a student of the engineering college.

Professors at universities are often involved in research, since many universities make scientific and/or scholarly research a point of focus. Some universities house medical research facilities where students and professors work to solve real-world medical issues.

To continue researching, browse degree options below for course curriculum, prerequisites and financial aid information. Or, learn more about the subject by reading the related articles below:

The schools in the listing below are not free and may include sponsored content but are popular choices among our users. Tuition and costs will vary across programs and locations. Be sure to always request tuition information before starting a program.

Popular Schools

  1. 1
  2. 2
  3. 3
  4. 4
  5. Next »