What’s the Difference Between Colleges and Universities?

Last updated February 21, 2024

As you consider whether higher education is right for you and your career goals, your research may uncover new questions. Should I go to a college or a university? Are they the same? And if not, what’s the difference between colleges and universities?

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, there are around 6,000 higher education institutions in the United States. Of this total, 45% are four-year programs, and 55% offer two-year (or fewer) programs.

Many people are unaware of the differences between colleges and universities; most use the two terms interchangeably. You may think it’s all in the naming choice – for example, Harvard University vs. Charleston College. However, there are more notable differences between colleges and universities, such as the variety and size of programs offered.

What’s the difference between colleges and universities?

The terms college, university and school all generally refer to postsecondary education or education after high school. Using the three terms interchangeably is appropriate when referring to general postsecondary education or degree programs. However, how you refer to each institution depends on a few different characteristics.


College is a two-year or four-year educational institution. Typically smaller than universities, colleges can be public or private and tailored towards populations such as religious groups, genders or ethnicities. Regarding their educational paths, colleges offer certificates, associate’s degrees or bachelor’s degrees.

Well-known types of colleges include:

  • Community college
  • Liberal arts college
  • Vocational college (or trade school)
  • Historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs)


A university is a four-year educational institution offering both undergraduate and graduate degrees and can be private or public. Universities have more students enrolled than colleges, often in the tens of thousands; however, private universities tend to have smaller enrollment figures. Many universities are known for their research and advanced degree programs such as law or dental schools.

Colleges within universities

You may discover specific colleges within a university, such as The Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania. This type of college is a part of the greater university, though it focuses on a specific field of study, like business or law.

Duration and academic structure

You’ll find that most colleges offer two-year programs (often called an associate’s degree). In contrast, universities offer four-year degree programs and higher graduate programs. Therefore, you could spend between two to four years at a college but may spend four to six (or more with a Ph.D.) years in a university.

Traditional, four-year program

In a traditional four-year program, whether at a college or a university, the academic years are divided among four classes from the first to the fourth year: freshman (or first year), sophomore, junior and senior. Generally, the first two years are spent studying core education classes, such as English, math, history and science, while the final two years are spent studying in their chosen field.

Two-year program

In a two-year program at a college, academic years are generally called first year and second year, and the curriculum is programmed to focus on broader studies.

Types of programs

One of the significant differences between colleges and universities is the types of programs offered. Generally, colleges focus on undergraduate programs only, while universities provide a wide range of undergraduate, graduate and Ph.D. programs.

Undergraduate programs

Colleges may offer two-year programs called associate degrees (A.A.) or four-year bachelor’s degree programs. The associate degree focuses on providing a broad education with classes such as math, computers and communications to prepare students for specialized training or moving on to a bachelor’s degree in their chosen field.

Graduate programs

Graduate programs at universities (including master’s and doctorate degrees) are intended to follow the earning of a bachelor’s degree for those who wish to develop their knowledge, specialize in particular fields or focus on in-depth research. Graduate programs exist for science, business and education students (to name a few), and some programs are necessary for particular careers such as doctors, lawyers and dentists.

Small vs. large institutions

As you’re researching educational options after high school, you’ll find that the size of the school is often discussed during the college vs. university discussion. Colleges tend to have smaller enrollment, while universities tend to enroll tens of thousands of students.

The institution’s size can impact the learning experience, both in the classroom and out. For example, large universities may offer many courses within your field of study, while a small college may offer introductory courses. In a university, these classes may be massive lecture courses during which you don’t have the opportunity to truly engage with the subject and the professor. On the other hand, small colleges with more intimate class sizes allow you to ask questions, participate in conversations and get to know your peers and professors better.

Outside of the classroom, large universities may have opportunities for research, internships, extracurricular activities and social clubs readily available for students, whereas small colleges may not have the same offerings. Depending on your preferred study methods and personality, one of these learning and social environments may seem more attractive to you.

Private vs. public institutions

Both colleges and universities can be public or private institutions.

Public institutions

Public institutions are primarily funded by state governments and tend to be larger, enroll more students and offer more resources than private institutions. Examples of public institutions are the University of South Carolina and UNC Chapel Hill.

Private institutions

Tuition, endowments and donations from individuals, foundations and corporations fund private institutions. They tend to be smaller in enrollment and have higher tuition fees to offset the lack of government funding but offer more expansive financial aid packages for those who qualify. Examples of private institutions are Furman University and Harvard University.

Community colleges vs. four-year colleges

Another distinction between educational institutions is community colleges vs. four-year colleges. The significant difference between the two is that community college is a smaller, more local-focused institution offering one- or two-year programs. In contrast, four-year colleges tend to be larger and offer four-year and graduate programs. Many students attend a community college for their core classes before enrolling in a four-year college for their final two years before earning a bachelor’s degree.

Admission and enrollment

Though many differences exist in the academic programs for colleges and universities, admissions and enrollment are similar. High school students often submit applications for colleges and universities in the fall or winter of their senior year. 

The process is similar across many colleges and universities. Most applications are hosted online. To complete the application, you must gather the following information and documentation:

  • Basic personal information, such as residential address and demographic information
  • High school (and/or college) transcript
  • Standardized test scores
  • Letters of recommendation
  • Extracurricular activity information
  • Admissions essay (if applicable)

Applications for enrollment also typically require a submission fee between $50 and $100.

Admissions criteria can differ between trade schools, colleges and universities. Community colleges and trade schools may not have a GPA minimum or high school diploma requirement to apply. However, most, if not all, colleges and universities require a high school diploma at the least, and many require at least a 2.0 high school GPA to be considered for admission.

Beyond the classroom: specialties and programs

The benefit of attending a university is the wide range of opportunities in the classroom and beyond. Compared to trade schools and community colleges, colleges and universities offer various programs and curricula. This extensive offering is one of the advantages of attending a four-year college or university. Many offer multiple departments in the most popular fields of study: business, social sciences, health sciences, engineering, communication and journalism, visual arts, education and information sciences.

In addition, universities often offer multiple graduate and doctorate programs to further your education and experience in research

For example, The Furman Advantage is an outstanding program unique to Furman students that prepares them and develops their skills for success in the real world. Rather than simply providing education through classes and coursework, the Furman Advantage, along with Furman institutes, goes one step further to give the students knowledge and skills to add positivity to society while furthering their experiences as they transition into the next stage of life.

Similarly, colleges and universities encourage students to gain career knowledge through internships and worldly experience through study away and study abroad programs. Many of these programs are unavailable through smaller two-year schools and community colleges.

Final thoughts

When deciding whether to apply to a college vs. university, you must consider your career and educational goals first. Your desired field of study may dictate which postsecondary institution you attend. Next, consider how class size and extracurricular opportunities will affect your experience. Finally, when choosing between a college and a university, remember that both types of schooling will provide the education you need to advance your career. However, your lifestyle and preferences for class format will impact you the most.

Enjoy the search!

The perspectives and thoughts shared in the Furman Blog belong solely to the author and may not align with the official stance or policies of Furman University. All referenced sources were accurate as of the date of publication.