What is the Difference Between a College and University & Where Will You Go?

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As today’s students prepare to enter the post secondary learning environment they are confronted with many issues. For some it is a question of finance, for others it is program and family concerns, and for still others a matter of finding that right fit socially, economically and geographically. So what is the differences between a college and university learning environment?

The diversity of today’s student population has moved this discussion well beyond the simple principles of even the 90’s. The advent of technology, online and blended learning environments, and even new early college programs, along with embedded high schools within college environments has given new meaning and understanding to the term dual enrollment and the dynamics of change in both colleges and universities. Any discussion here would however need to begin with the basic understandings of the differences between colleges and universities.

First, college is defined by Webster’s Online (2010) as; “an institution of higher education that grants degrees, as a bachelor’s degree after a four-year course or an associate degree after a two-year course: it is sometimes the undergraduate division of a university.” (na) There are of course a number of institutional environments that fit into the college category.

First are the technical colleges. These are certificate based short term institutions that are specific to a certain subject or training. There may be numerous offerings but they are all specific to the desired certification or training desired. These are schools like the International Academy of Design and Technology in Tampa, Florida and Southeastern Institute in Columbia, South Carolina.

Next are the Community Colleges. In their original inception they were intended to be a bridge between high school and university. Reasons for attending community college were and are as diverse as the population itself. In a community college you will find the student who wants to stay close to home and save money while getting started in their post secondary studies. You will also find the second career student adult learner who is either trying to start a new career or updating current credentials for job enhancement. You will also find that student who is at risk or a casualty of high stakes testing who simply wants to get started pursuing their dream in an environment that is smaller in size and financial commitment and thus more comfortable.

College vs. Universities: What is the Difference Betwen a College and Universities? (Continued)

When discussing what is the difference between a college and university, it is important to remember that the traditional community college has undergone some changes. Many are now offering both Associate degrees and four year baccalaureate degrees in the sciences or liberal arts. They are still preparing students for entry into university but they are also offering accelerated programming for those who do not desire the university degree. For example Westwood College has an accelerated program that presents Bachelor degrees in 3 years and Associate degrees in 20 months. They can do this because of the specialized study and the lack of required block studies in the basic educational practices.

Finally there are those honored institutions we call universities. There are two main items that set these institutions apart from their college counterparts. First they are research driven and as such the professors are required to research and publish as a condition of their employment. These research studies generate revenue for the university which in turn can offer more programs and degrees. In addition it lends prestige and credibility to the university.

Secondly, the university is a collection of several colleges within its own umbrella. Within a university you will find numerous colleges i.e. the College of Music and Dance, College of Arts and Sciences, or College of Mathematics and Technology to mention a few. Each of these colleges offers specific degrees which are then sanctioned by the University. For example this writer will receive upon completion of his dissertation a PhD of Philosophy/Higher Education Leadership from Capella University. While the classes fall under the School of Education the degree will be conferred by the University not the School of Education. As is the case with anything there are exceptions to the rule. For instance William and Mary College could label itself a university as it has and maintains a university structure but for what is considered historical purposes the name has not been changed. The same could also be said of M.I.T.

In the end the main difference between colleges and universities lies in the offerings and conferring of degrees along with research practices and the hierarchal structure of schools within the university structure. Colleges, while able to confer baccalaureate and in some cases masters degrees cannot confer PhD’s. One must look carefully at the offerings, degree requirements, and yes even time and cost when deciding which path to take.


Webster’s Online Dictionary (2010). College definition. Retrieved on March 21, 2010 from https://www.yourdictionary.com/college.