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College Versus University | What’s the Difference?

You made it through high school. Now it’s time for you – and your parents – to begin thinking about what comes next.

For many people, college is the logical next step. But taking that step is a big decision. It involves a wide range of considerations – everything from what courses to take and what major to choose to tuition rates, class sizes, campus life, your job prospects after graduation and more.

With that in mind, it pays to understand your options. For example, did you know that there’s a big difference between a “college” and a “university?” Those two words are often used interchangeably, but they’re not the same thing.

College, university, community college: How do they differ?

Many people think of a “college” as an institution that offers a four-year bachelor’s degree. That’s true, but there’s more to the story.

College: Any institute that offers a four-year undergraduate degree. Additionally, community colleges offer two-year associate’s degrees that will put you halfway to a four-year degree if desired. Vocational and technical colleges offer associate’s degrees and/or technical certificates. Generally speaking, technical certificates prepare students for specific technical careers.

University: Universities typically offer both bachelor’s degrees and graduate degrees, which are advanced fields of study you pursue after you earn a four-year degree. A single university campus usually has several different colleges, each devoted to a specific field of study – such as a college of engineering, college of human science, and the like. Compared to four-year colleges, universities also tend to have a higher number of students, offer a more diverse curriculum, and have more options for majors and courses.

Note: Here’s where it gets a little confusing… some institutions fit the bill of a University but still call themselves a “college” for sake of tradition. Make sure you know about your particular institution!

What’s right for you?
How do you determine which school is the best fit for you? There’s no magic formula. You’ll need to weigh a range of factors. Here are three big ones to think about.

  1. Consider Cost. This is perhaps the most common one to consider. That’s not surprising, given how the price tag for a college education has risen over the last several decades.

    Another point to consider about cost: Colleges and universities can be publicly or privately operated. Generally speaking, the sticker price for attending a four-year private college is higher than at a public college or university. That said, many four-year private colleges and universities provide significant institutional aid to incentivize attendance. Make sure you understand the net price of the different schools you are considering attending.
  2. Decide your Best Fit. Would you prefer an urban or rural campus environment? Large or small campus? Are you prepared to move across the country? Program availability is another key consideration. Does the institution offer the specific courses you’re interested in or the major you’d like to pursue? If you are interested in doing research during your time as an undergraduate, does the institution you’re looking at offer research opportunities.
  3. Your learning style: If you learn best in smaller classroom settings and with personal contact with instructors, a small college might be the right fit for you. Many university classes can be quite large, sometimes packing in a few hundred people in a lecture hall. If you prefer professors to have a less hands-on approach, then you might thrive in a larger class setting. That said, there are private universities that offer both the smaller class sizes as well as diversity in programs offered.
     

Do your homework

At this point in your life, you probably have a lot going on and a lot of decisions to make. One decision that can feel huge is deciding on a major. If you feel like you just don’t know yet what major you’d like to choose, that’s OK. Plenty of people start college with an idea or as an Undecided major, only to switch their major when they learn more about what they’d like to do. Even if you don’t know which major you’re going to pursue, it is still important to do some research when selecting a school. Whether you choose a college or a university, you’ll want to find the best fit for you at the best price. Take into account your learning style, your preferred school size, your post-grad plans, and make the best decision with the information you have. Don’t know where to start? Check out our Cost of College Comparison tool to get started finding the best school within your family’s budget!

Remember, your education is an investment, and you want to ensure that investment will help build a foundation for your career and future.


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