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Finally Answered! Differences Between Universities and Colleges in the United States


yale university, landscape, universities

Attending a university or college in the United States takes planning. International students high should dedicate at least a year or two deciding which university or college is right for them. You can speak with your parents, teachers, counselors, and education agents to gain the knowledge needed to make the best decision. There is so much to consider! The location, weather, undergraduate program, graduate program, and size of the university or college...the list goes on.


But what you'll probably notice during your research is that we use the terms university and college interchangeably. Using these terms can confuse people who grew up outside the United States because a college is definitely different than a university in some countries.


And then it gets even more confusing when you hear the word "School"! What is going on?


It's important to know the differences between a university and a college as it will have a major impact on your choice of school.


There are over 4,000 universities and colleges in the United States. It may feel overwhelming to narrow your list of schools to just a few. But with some thought and research, you can make the best decision to attend the university or college of your choice.


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What is the difference between a college and a university?

college and university students, graduate students

College vs University. Which do you choose?


There are distinct differences between colleges and universities. But understand there is some overlap of what makes one institution a university and another a college. Thankfully, it's not hard to distinguish the two.


What is a college?

Colleges are smaller institutions of higher education that focus on undergraduate degrees. These degrees can be a Bachelor of Arts (B.A.), a Bachelor of Science (B.S.), an Associate of Arts (A.A.), or a certificate. Colleges do not offer a graduate program. In short, a person could not attain a master's degree or a doctorate.


When searching for a college or university, you will see the term "college" in the name of many different schools. You will find many institutions are community colleges, liberal arts colleges, and technical colleges. Each of these colleges has its benefits of advancing your college education.


Let’s take a look at each one so you have a good understanding of what they are and what they can offer you.


Community Colleges

community college students, associate's degree students

Community colleges offer two-year associate degrees that prepare you to transfer to a four-year college or university to earn a bachelor’s degree. They also offer other associate degrees and certificates that focus on preparing you for a specific career. These colleges are often an affordable option with relatively low tuition.


Examples of community colleges are Shoreline Community College and Bellevue College. Shoreline offers over 100 academic and professional/technical degrees and certificates and has a dedicated faculty committed to success. Shoreline is a beautiful place for international students to attend.


Bellevue is another international student-friendly school. Bellevue has over 1100 international students from more than 60 countries enrolled in college and English language programs.


Liberal Arts Colleges

liberal arts school, private universities

These colleges offer a broad base of courses in the study of liberal arts: literature, history, languages, mathematics, and life sciences. Most of these colleges offer four-year bachelor and master's degrees and degree programs that can prepare you for various careers or graduate study.


An example of liberal arts college is Swarthmore College. Swarthmore is a private college of liberal arts education located in Pennsylvania on the east coast of the United States. Prospective students can choose from more than 40 programs of study, and the college is ranked #4 as a liberal arts college in the U.S.


Technical Colleges

professional schools, two year college for dental hygiene

Also referred to as Vocation or Career Colleges, technical colleges offer specialized training for a particular industry or career. Possible programs of study include culinary, firefighting, dental hygiene, and medical records technology. These higher education institutions are two-year colleges and offer certificates or associate degrees but no bachelor's degree. Technical colleges are wonderful places for people wanting to go into the workforce and earn a substantial income.


Public and Private Colleges and Universities

public and private college and university students

Funding a college is an essential aspect of its operation. The funding pays for improvements to the college, pays staff, and helps to supply the college with the equipment needed to instruct students.


Local and state governments fund public colleges and universities. These institutions offer lower tuition, especially for students who are residents of the same state. Public universities and colleges are usually larger than private schools with more facilities for students to enjoy.


Private colleges and universities rely heavily on tuition, fees, and private funding sources. Personal donations from alum can sometimes provide generous financial aid packages for students in need. Private colleges are more expensive because they are reliant on tuition and donations.


What makes a university a university?

difference between college and university class

Universities are large institutions with many enrolling tens of thousands of students. A university offers both undergraduate degrees and graduate degrees. Offering high-level degrees is what makes a university a university. Some of the confusion from researching colleges and universities is that universities consist of smaller departments (called colleges or schools) focusing on a specific course of study.


Yale an Harvard University are good examples. These are America’s most prestigious institutions. Within the confines of the universities, there is Yale College and Harvard College. In these colleges are undergraduate and graduate programs such as Yale College of Liberal Arts and Sciences or Harvard School of Engineering. Many universities in America are similar makeups to Yale and Harvard.


Other examples of universities are: The University of New Mexico, Southeast Missouri State University, Pittsburg State University and Central Washington University. Each of these schools have a tremendous amount of information for prospective international students.


Undergraduate Programs and Degrees

undergraduate programs, bachelor's degree

An undergraduate is a person who completes a degree typically in 4 years. Anyone entering university for the first time is considered an undergraduate. While acquiring an undergraduate degree, undergraduate students take a required number of core courses to fulfill their graduation requirements.


Many students choose to complete these general education courses at a local community college first, or even a technical college. Such a strategy can help cut costs of attendance and save money. Once the student has completed these courses, they can transfer to the college or university to complete their undergraduate degree.


Once a student has their undergraduate degree, they can enter their chosen career field or continue earning a master's degree or doctorate. Because of the cost of higher education, many students feel it is necessary to begin work in their careers and attend graduate school simultaneously. It will take a little longer to earn a graduate degree, but they can start paying off any student loans they may have acquired.


Graduate Programs

graduate programs, graduate degree programs

The time it takes to obtain a master’s degree or doctorate varies from school to school. Some students stay with the same university after receiving their bachelor's degree. Other students take some time off and look for a graduate program that is a good fit for them. Depending on your field, many companies require advanced degrees for a person to qualify to work for them.


Which is better, a college or a university?

college and university pros and cons

Many students ask, "Should I attend a college or a university?" This is a critical question. You want to make the right decision and have the best educational experience possible. When considering attending either a college or university in the U.S., here are some questions you should ask yourself.


What do I want to study?

As an international student, you must decide on a degree program you want to focus on. Starting from this angle, students can quickly narrow their choices of colleges or universities. Your answer will depend on your academic and career goals. When you have decided on a degree program, you can narrow your list to colleges or universities that specialize in that program.


Do I want to attend a small college or a large university?

For clarity, many colleges have large populations of students, and some universities have small populations. There are many pros and cons to attending a research university or a smaller institution. Students can receive more individualized attention and great instruction at a smaller school. The downside to a smaller setting is it may lack diversity and have fewer program offerings.


The advantage of a large university is you can choose from numerous programs of study. Having many programs is a benefit as many students change their majors or course of study during their undergraduate years. Another advantage is there will be more research opportunities and campus diversity and culture. Attending an institution of higher learning is more than academic; it can and should be an immersive experience with different people, ideas, and activities.


A downside of being at a large school is you will get less personalized attention. You may be placed in a class with 300 to 500 other students and become another face in the crowd. Being at a large school can be intimidating. Imagine being at the University of Central Florida which has a student population of 71,000!


We're Here to Help!


prospective international students

Congratulations! You are on one of the most exciting journeys of your life. Whether you are considering one of many graduate degree programs or an undergraduate education, searching for a college or university can be a daunting task It's imperative to stay informed on the latest college and university admission process updates.


We are here to help you. Our team specializes in providing accurate information to international students to make the best decision in selecting or university.


Join our email list. You will receive updates on everything you need about studying in the USA. We have many resources for international students, including Visa-To-Citizenship information.


Good luck with your search!

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