College lecture

What is the difference between ‘college’ and ‘university’?

Depending on where you are in the world, college and university can refer to very different things.

The distinctions between the two can often be confusing, contingent not only on your location, but also on what level or structure of education you are referring to. For instance, in using the word college, you might be talking about the actual physical campus of an educational institution, the students or faculty of an institution considered collectively, or simply the institution as a whole.

In the UK, college can refer to a wide variety of different institutions. These range from secondary schools, such as Eton College, to independent institutions that are part of a university, such as Balliol College of the University of Oxford. This second college may have its own students, teaching staff, and buildings, despite being a constituent part of a university. College is also used to refer to institutions of further education (distinct from universities), vocational schools such as art colleges, and sixth form colleges, which provide education for students aged 16-18.

University, on the other hand, refers to an entire institution of higher-level education, at which students pursue degrees and academics do research. Balliol College is thus contained within the University of Oxford.

In US English, the distinction between college and university is a little more muddled. One confusing point when discussing post-secondary education in the US is why these institutions have different names: why is one Harvard University but the other Hamilton College?

The reason for this distinction is that a college typically offers a curriculum limited to a bachelor’s (or undergraduate) degree, along with other types of post-secondary training such as that offered at community and junior colleges and technical schools, while auniversity offers instruction and examination of students in branches of advanced learning, as well as conferring degrees in various faculties. Similar to the relationship between Balliol College and the University of Oxford, an American university may even encompass colleges and other institutions. (For instance, the undergraduate Harvard College is technically a constituent part of the larger Harvard University.)

So, broadly speaking, college in American English usually refers to any educational institution providing a bachelor’s or associate’s degree or other post-secondary training, while university refers to institutions providing advanced degrees.

For more differences between US English and British English, have a look at British and American terms.

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