College vs university
Things can get a little confusing when trying to decipher the difference between a college and a university. This is especially true for UK students considering study in the US (or vice versa), because the terms can have very different uses in each country!
Colleges and universities in the US
Let’s start with the simple bit. In the US, colleges and universities are distinguished by one simple difference: a university is defined as an institution that offers both undergraduate and postgraduate degrees. A college, on the other hand, will only offer either undergraduate qualifications (such as associate or bachelor’s degrees) or short-term courses such as certificates.
Universities tend to have larger campuses, bigger student populations and a wider variety of courses available. They may also have a stronger focus on research than colleges. While many universities receive public funding, colleges are generally private.
There are various types of college in the US. Some, such as community and vocational colleges, generally offer two-year courses, while liberal arts colleges will offer 4-year Bachelors degrees.
Students sometimes assume that universities are ‘better’ than colleges. While you will benefit from a larger selection of courses at a university, the standard of education you receive will be equally high at both, and an undergraduate degree from a college will be no less respected than its university equivalent! Ultimately, which you choose will come down to the course you intend to study.
Note that despite the fact the terms ‘college’ and ‘university’ technically have distinct meanings, they will often be used interchangeably in the US!
Colleges and universities in the UK
As in the US, universities in the UK are accredited higher education institutions offering both undergraduate and postgraduate degrees. The word ‘college’ however, has a slightly different meaning.
Whereas in the US colleges are exclusively postsecondary institutions, some colleges in the UK also deliver academic or vocational courses to students aged 16–18, in order to prepare them for university or employment. This type of college is also known as ‘sixth form’.
UK colleges also provide adult education to those wishing to reskill or improve their qualifications, as well as foundation degrees for those intending to progress to university. There are some colleges in the UK offering full honours degrees, often at a much lower cost than university.
Just to complicate things slightly...
If you’re just about starting to get your head round these definitions, allow us to throw one (small) curveball your way: the word ‘college’ is also used in a couple of other contexts! Firstly, there are several institutions in the US which are technically universities but call themselves ‘colleges’, either due to tradition or there being university with the same name (the College of Charleston, for example).
Secondly, some UK universities (most famously Oxford and Cambridge), are divided into a series of colleges. These generally have more of a social and residential than an academic function, although colleges at some institutions may deliver teaching.