What’s the Difference Between College and University in the U.S. and U.K.?

If you’ve just finished high school, you must be considering the next step: your higher education options. By now, you’ve probably seen the words ‘college’ and ‘university’ everywhere. But what are the differences between a college and a university? Do they have distinct meanings in different countries? And how do the differences influence your decision?

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What are colleges?

In general, colleges are smaller education institutions when compared to universities. They offer undergraduate/Bachelor’s degrees, associate degrees, or certificates. The number of courses offered is limited, and study programmes take between 2-4 years to complete.

Attending college education does not prevent you from applying for a graduate degree at a university later on if you want to advance your knowledge or change your career.

Employers will not look down on a college degree, as long as it proves you have the skills they are looking for. However, if you apply for a position that requires more advanced abilities, you will need to study a postgraduate degree.

Colleges in the U.S.

In the U.S., there are 3 types of colleges:

  • Community colleges
  • Professional/vocational schools (e.g. Nursing, Teaching)
  • Liberal arts colleges

Degree programmes at community and vocational schools usually take 2 years to complete and you’ll be awarded an associate degree, a professional degree, or a certificate. Students can then choose to go to a university to complete their Bachelor’s degree and follow a Master’s or Ph.D. if they choose so. Courses at liberal arts colleges take 4 years and students graduate with a Bachelor’s degree in fields such as Languages, Math, History, and others.

Things get confusing when you find out that some colleges are actually universities, which choose to stick with the name ‘college’ due to tradition. One example is St. Joseph’s College in New York, which offers Master’s degrees in addition to its Bachelor’s programmes.

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Colleges in the U.K.

Colleges in the U.K. and the U.S. both include vocational schools, but community and liberal arts colleges are only common in the U.S. Courses at U.K. colleges take 1-2 years and usually serve 3 functions:

  • Offer further education to students between 16-18 years old (called ‘sixth form’)
  • Provide vocational training (which prepares you for a specific job: teacher, nurse, technician, etc.)
  • Offer adult education

Colleges in Europe

Colleges are not always higher education institutions. In Portugal, for example, the term 'colegio' (college) refers to a private institution offering secondary education. It is also common in the names of public high schools in Romania.

Similarities between colleges in the U.S. and the U.K.

  • Like universities, colleges can be either public institutions (funded by the state) or private organisations.
  • College degrees should come from accredited institutions, otherwise they are not relevant on the job market. The American Department of Education allows you to verify an institution’s accreditation. The British government offers this option as well.
  • Colleges are usually several thousand dollars cheaper than universities.
  • Some British and American colleges offer accommodation on their halls of residence or campuses. If you choose to rent a room somewhere else, they can offer you support and advice.
  • Colleges offering two-year degrees specialised on a certain profession have lower entry requirements when compared to four-year colleges awarding Bachelor’s degrees.

Universities in the U.S. and the U.K.

Universities are larger education institutions compared to colleges and offer both undergraduate and graduate/postgraduate degree programmes. They have a more diversified curriculum and offer a variety of courses, and usually include research facilities and sports centres.

The number of students enrolling in universities is much higher than the one in colleges. International students looking for higher education abroad usually choose universities, rather than colleges, which tend to be a more popular choice for local students.

It’s not uncommon for universities to be made up of schools or colleges. In this case, colleges are the same as departments within a university. For example, Harvard University is made up of other colleges (also referred to as schools), including Harvard Business School, Harvard College, Harvard School of Dental Medicine, etc.

The university is the one providing the degrees and allowing students to access all its facilities, but courses are held at one (or multiple) of the colleges or schools. An example from the U.S. is Purdue University, which includes the College of Education, the College of Engineering, and others.

How Americans and Brits refer to college vs. university

In the United States, the words ‘school’, ‘college’, and ‘university’ are used interchangeably in speech when referring to higher education institutions. Out of the three, ‘college’ is the most frequently used one. Teachers, parents and students use it to refer to their undergraduate or graduate/postgraduate studies and institutions.

In America, it’s more common to hear ‘I’m going to college’ or ‘college students’ than ‘I’m going to university’, which is something you’re likely to hear in Europe. The U.K. is the best example here. Students prefer to talk about ‘going to university’ or refer to themselves as ‘university graduates’, rather than ‘college graduates’.

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Should I choose a college or a university?

This decision depends on your future plans as both colleges and universities can be a good fit. If you’re only interested in a Bachelor’s degree and you're not thinking about graduate studies, a college is a great choice as long as it offers the academic programme you want.

The same thing applies if you’re interested in a vocational career. For example, going to a college is the fastest way to become a nurse, and you’ll enjoy a more practical approach to your studies.

If you dream of becoming an authority in your field, conducting serious research, and being a Ph.D. graduate, then university is a great option.

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Conclusions about universities vs colleges

So, what should you keep in mind about colleges and universities if you want to study abroad:

  • Universities are more popular among international students because they usually offer better facilities, support, and a larger number of courses and disciplines when compared to colleges.
  • If you want to study a Master’s degree or a Ph.D. you will have to enrol in a university to get it.
  • Colleges can be independent higher education institutions, they can refer to departments making up a university, or they can be high schools in certain European countries.
  • Some universities refer to themselves as colleges for historical/traditional reasons – research them to be sure.
  • Americans call everything “a college”.

Best of luck and have a great study experience!

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