College vs. University: Which Route Is Right for You?

 August 13, 2021
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College versus university

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“College versus university” is an important comparison that many families misunderstand. Although these terms are often used interchangeably, college could be a community-oriented two- or four-year institution, while a university might offer bachelor’s and advanced degrees near a bustling metropolis.

There is plenty of gray area in the college versus university conservation, however, so let’s get more specific. Beyond these labels, you’ll want to evaluate schools’ available degrees, academic programs and campus size, among other factors.

Defining college vs. university

Before you worry about, say, choosing a private versus a public college, it’s wise to first be clear between colleges and universities.

What is a college? What is a university?
● Can be two-year junior or community colleges that offer associate degrees
● Can also be small private, sometimes liberal arts schools that offer bachelor’s degrees
● Sometimes a “college” is just a particular school or department within a university (such as the University of Colorado’s College of Music)
● Public or private four-year schools that offer bachelor’s and graduate degrees
● May offer accelerated paths toward advanced degrees
● Typically focused on research, with esteemed professors leading labs and writing white papers

Colleges are typically associated with smaller schools, while universities could have sprawling campuses with five-figure enrollments (and perhaps endowments).

A college, then, is likely to have a much lower student-to-teacher ratio in the classroom. A university, however, might have a greater amount of diversity, both in its student and faculty population and in its degree programs.

One reason the terms college and university are mistaken for each other: There are colleges within universities. If you have an undeclared major at Arizona State University, for example, you might apply to one of its 17 “colleges” on campus. Colleges within universities tend to differentiate themselves by broad subject areas, such as business, journalism or nursing.

How does a college become a university?
● By having distinct undergraduate and graduate degree programs
● By providing at least three advanced degree pathways to grad students
● By gaining or maintaining accreditation as a university

College vs. university: Pros, cons and cost

Whether you’re just beginning your research or are fine-tuning a college list, it could be helpful to examine the pros, cons and cost of colleges and universities.

Pros and cons of colleges Pros and cons of universities
Pros Cons Pros Cons
Community colleges: Low tuition prices
Liberal arts colleges: Broad education
Small colleges: More professor attention and classroom interaction
Community colleges: Lack of degree paths (though transferring is possible)
Liberal arts colleges: Can be pricey
Small colleges: Potential lack of diversity on campus, curriculum
● Wide array of programs, degree paths
● Diverse enrollment
● Learning from (and researching alongside) notable professors
● Large class sizes and research-oriented instructors could leave you feeling lost
● Cost of four-year universities sometimes dominates that of colleges
College vs. university: What about cost?
Because the lines between colleges and universities blur, the only apples-to-apples comparison we can make is between public two-year and public four-year schools. Here’s the average 2020-2021 tuition for each, according to the College Board:
Two-year (for in-district students): $3,770
Four-year (in-state students): $10,560
Four-year (out-of-state students): $27,020

Comparing colleges to universities in this fashion should give you a good starting point in your research. But remember:

  • Colleges aren’t necessarily small, and universities aren’t always large.
  • Colleges offer more than just two-year degrees in many cases, and not all universities are “public research universities” that specialize in churning out bookish intellectuals.
  • Some schools that are technically universities have “college” in their name! (such as Boston College)

College vs. universities: The right choice for you

Yes, it’s easy to get hung up on terminology, particularly for first-generation and international students not familiar with the landscape. However, don’t let the college versus university comparison distract you from your real aim: to find the right school for your family.

Think about what you want out of higher education. Then ask yourself the following questions, and your answers should lead you to choose a college or university, or both.

  • Do you already know what you want to study, or do you plan to take various 101-level courses before declaring a major?
  • What type of degree (associate, bachelor’s or beyond) will lead you to the career you desire?
  • What do you value about the on-campus community, whether it be small, collaborative classrooms or a more diverse environment with a wide range of resources?
  • How much can you reasonably afford to pay for school, and does that include borrowing federal or private student loans?

Also, keep in mind that one of the most effective ways to earn your degree is to start out at a two-year school and then transfer to a four-year program for your junior and senior years. This way, you would attend both a college and a university — and spend less overall.