College vs University [And Other Higher Education Institutions]
By Peter Van Buskirk on January 07, 2020
Sorting through educational options can be like making a selection from diverse menu offerings at a great restaurant. You can order fish or steak. What about chicken of shellfish? The salads look great. In the mood for pasta? And look at the choices within each food group. You have options—and each would be a fine meal.
The same is true of education. You know about colleges and universities. Add online universities, community colleges and technical institutes into the mix. Season them all with regional identities. Fund some privately and others with money granted by their respective state legislatures. The resulting menu includes options for students with wide-ranging needs and interests. The key is to know the difference—and then make choices that represent good fits for you.
The Different Terms Used in Conversation
It is common for people in the U.S. to use the generic term “college” in reference to all places of higher education. You notice this when you are asked, “To which colleges are you applying?” or “What do you want to study when you go to college?” One word seems to cover all. Ironically, that same word, college, is synonymous with high school in many other cultures!
Conversely, the terms university or institute are more commonly used conversationally in many other parts of the world by students as they contemplate post-secondary education.
Despite fundamental similarities—they both offer four-year, bachelor-degree programs - the university and the college are very different types of institutions. The differences, however, lie in the structure, organization and priorities of the respective institutions.
What Classifies a University?
Universities are typically larger and always more complex institutions comprised of degree-granting entities at different levels of study: four-year undergraduate, graduate, and doctoral/professional degree. Each level includes distinct colleges or programs defined by curricula that are specific to that college, i.e., College of Arts and Sciences (or General Studies), College of Business, College of Engineering, etc. It is important to note that the academic resources dedicated to each college are shared by the students at each level of study within it.
Some universities place great emphasis on, and are highly regarded for, advanced study and research. Their academic facilities are quite impressive and often include hospitals, policy institutes and grant-supported research facilities. As you research universities, be sure to confirm that you will have access to the professors, facilities and research opportunities for which the school is well-known.
When you apply for admission to a university, you need to identify the specific undergraduate college within it (and, sometimes, the specific major) in which you wish to study. A change in academic interests during your undergraduate years will likely result in the need to transfer from one college of the university to another.
What Classifies a College?
By contrast, a college (independent of a university) offers a relatively simple institutional structure. It does not have multiple levels of study nor divisions within its program of study. More importantly, all of its resources are devoted to undergraduate education. The liberal arts college is an example of such an institution.
When you apply to a college that stands apart—it is an institution unto itself—you are less likely to have to commit to a particular academic program. In fact, many liberal arts colleges will allow, if not urge you to remain undeclared with regard to your major as you explore the curriculum through your first two years.
More Institutional Types
The following are descriptions of additional types of non-profit institutions you might encounter as you learn more about your educational options.
State colleges and universities derive most of their operating support from the taxpayers of the states in which they are located. Their missions are to provide educational opportunities to students who reside within their states. Many states feature flagship universities along with networks of regional universities. Admission usually favors in-state applicants for whom fees are typically lower given the subsidies from the respective state governments. For out-of-state applicants, however, the probabilities of admission will be lower and fees will often be higher by a factor of at least two.
Public flagship universities are the principal state-supported universities within their respective states. “Land grant” universities established to serve as state centers for education and research, these institutions have benefitted from strong state support to become large and highly complex. Some public flagships offer set-apart honors programs for selected applicants that have many of the qualities often attributed to stand-alone colleges. Otherwise, undergraduate programs can tend to be overshadowed by graduate programs at public flagships.
Private institutions, both colleges and universities, are supported almost entirely by tuition, fees, interest from endowments and gifts from individual and corporate donors. They are not bound by relationships with the legislatures in their respective states which gives them greater latitude in determining what the academic program and admission standards look like. Fees are the same for in-state and out-of-state students.
Research universities, both public and private, are best known for the strength of their well-funded research programs. The popularity they enjoy, reflected in admission selectivity, is often associated more with the prestige of their research programs rather than anything extraordinary taking place in their undergraduate programs.
Technical institutes and specialty schools focus on training and the development of specific skills. Both public and private, these programs offer limited opportunities in areas of general studies.
Community and junior colleges are two-year programs that offer a range of curricula from liberal arts to certificate programs for specialty training. They are low-cost, highly accessible options for students who seek technical training or want to prepare for entry into four-year programs.
Each of the institutions referenced here will convey some type of certification for the academic work completed. For example, when you have satisfactorily completed a course, you will be awarded a credit or, in some cases, credit hours reflective of the rigor or time commitment associated with the course. These credits become part of your formal academic record where they can accrue toward distribution requirements, academic concentrations, minors, majors and, eventually, graduation or certificates of completion.
Many institutions grant academic credits to entering students based on proficiency in college-level work as demonstrated on Advanced Placement (AP) exams, International Baccalaureate exams and college courses taken while in high school. That said, not all credits for college-level academic work will be automatically recognized by the receiving institution. You would be wise to seek a credit evaluation from the institution you are considering before assuming it will honor all of the credits you have acquired.
The major you choose will include a concentration of courses in a particular academic discipline as well as related coursework that faculty within the department in question believe is essential to developing a mastery of the subject. It is not uncommon, for example, to find that major requirements reach outside of a given departmental offerings to include courses like Calculus and Research Methods. In fact, some colleges will give you the opportunity to work with faculty advisors in assembling courses from multiple disciplines to create your own major. Regardless, the number of courses associated with the major you choose will probably account for 40-50% of all courses taken by the time you graduate.
If you enter a liberal arts college or the general studies program at a university, you will likely be given time to explore different academic options before declaring a major at the end of your second year. If, on the other hand, you have rather well-defined academic interests from the outset, you might consider pursuing a minor (less intensive course requirements) or even a major in a second academic department within the same college.
The coursework in which you engage outside of your intended major will involve electives, courses within your college of study that you choose because of their interest to you. Many colleges will attempt to guide your selection of electives by articulating distribution requirements with the thought being that exposure to certain disciplines outside of your major is essential to your overall educational experience.
The end game for most students is to achieve some type of credentialing reflective of the academic work accomplished. At four-year colleges, the degree will be either the “bachelor of arts” or the “bachelor of science,” depending on the academic departments from which the preponderance of electives are taken.
Students completing curricular requirements at two-year colleges will receive associate degrees, often with designated academic concentrations or certificates of completion.
It is not uncommon for students to begin their college coursework at one institution, either a two-year or four-year college or university, with the intent to eventually complete four-year degree requirements at another. If this is a consideration for you, be sure to determine whether the beginning and ending institutions have articulation agreements in place. Such agreements provide assurance from the institution into which you want to transfer that it will recognize all of the coursework completed at the beginning institution. The presence of articulation agreements is also a good indication that the beginning institution will provide the necessary academic support to make sure you are taking the appropriate courses with transfer in mind.
Which Makes Sense to You?
The discussion about institutional type has relevance to your college search as you consider the manner in which your learning style is most meaningfully engaged. This isn’t a matter of good or bad. It’s simply an acknowledgement that institutions vary greatly in the manner in which they deliver the educational experience. Whereas universities tend to enroll more students and feature varied and diverse educational agendas, stand-alone colleges are invariably smaller (but larger than most high schools!) with educational agendas and support systems that focus exclusively on undergraduate education. The question, then, is which one will fit you best?