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College vs. University

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?

OK, here we go:

  • 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.
  • Case in point: Community colleges offer a two-year associate’s degree. In many cases, that degree will put you halfway to a four-year degree. (You also have vocational/technical schools that offer associate’s degrees and/or technical certificates. Generally speaking, technical certificates are designed for people who want to learn a specific skill that will help them in their career.)
  • So now we get to universities. The easiest way to think of them is like larger versions of four-year colleges. But there’s a twist: 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.

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.

Factor 1: 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 price tag for attending a four-year private college is higher than what you’d pay at a public college or university. 

Factor 2: Location

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? Academic rankings are yet another point to think about. For many (but not all) professions, graduating from a well-regarded institution can have a robust impact on your career prospects.

Factor 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.

Do your homework!

At this point in your life, you probably have a lot going on and a lot of decisions to make. For example, you might not be certain about what you want to study and what major you want to pursue. If not, that’s OK. Plenty of people start college with an idea, only to switch their major when they discover a passion for a different field. But that does emphasize the importance of doing your homework when selecting a school and deciding on a course of study. Whether you choose a college or a university, you’ll want to find the right fit for you.

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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