Post-secondary education choices for high schoolers and adult learners often include both colleges and universities. Distinguishing a college from a university and judging the merits of each can be difficult. This article helps clarify your choices. College

Some people think of college as referring strictly to an undergraduate, liberal arts, four-year institution. But this is simply not the case. Even the official United States Department of Education definition shows that the term is more complex than that. In a glossary of terms for Graduate Study, the following definition of college is given:

“An institution of higher learning that offers undergraduate programs, usually of a four-year duration, that lead to the bachelor's degree in the arts or sciences (B.A. or B.S.). The term "college" is also used in a general sense to refer to a postsecondary institution. A college may also be a part of the organizational structure of a university.”

But this does not cover all the different meanings. Here are some of the ways the word college is used:

  • A college is a post-secondary school, an institution that focuses on undergraduate education. It includes the institutions known as junior colleges and community colleges. Colleges of this sort award degrees such as Associates Degrees as well as a Bachelor of Arts (B.A.) and Bachelor of Science (B.S.). In and of itself, the word college may suggest a four-year liberal arts education, but there are also technical colleges that supply other types of experience.
  • A college is also an institution of higher education that offers both undergraduate and graduate degree programs, though the graduate programs may not be extensive.
  • A college is the name of a cohesive educational unit within a university, such as a College of Education or College of Engineering or College of Arts and Sciences, that functions of a subset of the larger institution, with its own faculty and facilities, departments, and degree programs.
  • A college can be a unit of graduate or professional education, such as a Graduate College, College of Medicine, or College of Law.
  • A college is a religious institution, such as the College of Cardinals of the Roman Catholic Church.
  • A college is the students and faculty of an institution also called a college.


Some people think of university as referring to an institution with a focus on graduate as well as undergraduate programs, a highly qualified faculty involved in cutting edge research, and a wide range of program offerings. The same US Department of Education glossary offers the following definition for university:

“An educational institution that usually maintains one or more four-year undergraduate colleges (or schools) with programs leading to a bachelor's degree, a graduate school of arts and sciences awarding master's degrees and doctorates (Ph.D.s), and graduate professional schools.”

But this is not always the case. A university may simply be an institution that offers at least one graduate degree. You may, in fact, find universities with:

  • a lower percentage of Ph.D.'s on the faculty than that found at many colleges
  • as few as 100 graduate students
  • graduate programs staffed almost entirely by adjunct professors rather than full-time faculty
  • offer graduate degrees in only one area (often education)
  • offer only on-line courses
  • fail to meet accreditation standards
  • has faculty without terminal degrees in their field

Whether considering a college or a university, if you have any doubts about what is being offered, it is a good idea to check with standard reviews, such as Barron's Profile of American Colleges, U.S. News and World Report's college review or the Princeton Review guide to colleges. Agencies to check for proper accreditation include the following for graduate programs:

  • Commission on Institutions of Higher Education (CIHE)
  • Council for Higher Education Accrediation (CHEA)
  • Middle States Commission of Higher Education (CHE) (MSA)
  • The North Central Association of Colleges & Schools
  • The Northwest Commission on Colleges & Universities (NWCCU).
  • Southern Association of Colleges & Schools
  • The Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC)

Agencies to check for college accreditation include:

  • Middle States Association of Schools and Colleges Commission on Higher Education
  • New England Association of Schools and Colleges Commission on Institutions of Higher Education
  • Commission on Technical and Career Institutions 
  • North Central Association of Schools and Colleges Commission on Institutions of Higher Education
  • Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges
  • Western Association of Schools and Colleges Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges
  • Accrediting Commission for Senior Colleges and Universities

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