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Difference Between Colleges and Universities in the USA and UK

Written by Sarah Hastings-Woodhouse

The US and the UK are two of the most popular study abroad destinations in the world, hosting almost 1.5 million international students between them. While the two countries have a lot in common, there are some important differences between postgraduate study in each that any prospective Masters student should be aware of!

This guide will summarise the key points of comparison, from confusing differences in terminology to fees, funding and visa requirements.

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.

Learn more about postgraduate study in the USA

Our comprehensive guides to Masters study in the USA cover funding, top universities, applications and much more.

Postgraduate vs graduate

In the UK, Masters and PhD courses are categorised as ‘postgraduate’. In the US, you’ll hear these same courses referred to as ‘graduate’ programmes. Don’t let this confuse you – the two terms essentially refer to the same thing; that is, any further study that is undertaken after the undergraduate level.

There are, however, some pretty important differences between how postgraduate study functions in each country. Perhaps the most significant of these is duration – Masters programmes in the UK usually last one year if studied full-time, compared to at least two years in the US.

Part of the reason that Masters courses in the US take longer to complete is that they are generally less specialised than their UK equivalents. The aim of graduate study in America is to equip students with a more comprehensive knowledge of a particular discipline. Since a US Bachelors degree will include modules in a range of subjects, with students eventually choosing one discipline to ‘major’ in, the graduate level is the first at which students will focus exclusively on one subject area.

In the UK, by contrast, students will already have had the opportunity to specialise in a particular discipline at the undergraduate level, so a Masters will usually focus on a specific topic within that discipline.

Teaching style also differs between the two countries. In the US, you’ll encounter a more structured approach, with:

  • Frequent assessments
  • A higher number of contact hours
  • Supplementary training to equip you with wide range of transferable skills

Masters study in the UK tends to place more of an emphasis on independent research.

Colleges and universities in Canada

The distinction between colleges and universities is similar in Canada to in the US. Colleges usually offer undergraduate degrees, as well as other qualifications such as diplomas and certificates. Only universities offer Masters degrees. Postgraduate degrees in Canada are usually also referred to as 'graduate' programmes.

Read more about studying in Canada.

Fees and funding

US universities charge an average of $20,000-35,000 (£16,230-28,400) per year for international students, compared to £17,110-20,170 ($21,085-24,855) in the UK. Since your degree could take up to twice as long to complete in the USA, you’ll probably incur a substantial cost by the end of your programme.

Funding your Masters in the US

Masters fees might be higher in the US than the UK, but it’s pretty uncommon for students to finance their entire course. Government loans are usually only available for US citizens, but most larger universities will have their own scholarship packages. These will be either needs-based or merit-based and cover the cost of tuition fees (they may also include subsidization of living costs). Some universities also offer assistantships. These provide a fee waiver or stipend in exchange for services to the institution (assisting with the delivery of undergraduate programmes for example).

There are also several scholarship programmes available specifically for international students applying to study in the USA. Providers include the US-UK Fulbright Commission and The Fulbright Foreign Student Programme.

You can read more about US Masters funding options in our dedicated guide, or search directly for financial aid opportunities on America’s official study portal, Education USA.

Funding your Masters in the UK

As in the US, you’ll need to be a UK citizen to qualify for a postgraduate loan from the government (except in certain circumstances). Funding from universities is available but tends to be awarded less frequently than in the US. Postgraduate scholarships from UK universities are often very competitive. It’s best to consult individual university websites for information about the funding available.

The UK government offers a series of scholarships specifically for international students. Examples include:

You may also be able to apply for a scholarship targeted specifically at students from your home country. These are often offered as part of a partnership between the UK and another country, or by a broader exchange scheme seeking to encourage international study. For example, the UK-US Fulbright scheme provides funding for US students studying in the UK, and vice-versa.

You can find out more in our guide to UK Masters funding for international postgraduates.


You’ll need a student visa for postgraduate study in both the US and the UK.

To study in the USA, you’ll need to apply for an F-1 student visa. Only full-time students are eligible, but the visa will usually be valid for the duration of your course. You’ll also need to have an offer from an institution approved by the government’s Student and Exchange Visitor Programme. We explain the full process of applying for a US student visa in more detail in our guide to Masters Study in the USA.

To qualify for a student visa in the UK, you’ll need to be accepted onto either a full-time or part-time postgraduate course. Your chosen institution must have licensed student sponsor status, meaning it can ‘sponsor’ you as a student, by confirming that you will be studying a genuine postgraduate course in a way that satisfies UK immigration requirements. Don’t worry though – most universities are able to sponsor international students. You can view a full list on the UK government website.

You’ll also need to prove that you have the English language proficiency to complete your course, and that you have access to sufficient funds to cover your tuition and living costs. For more information, check out our UK visa guide for postgraduate students.

After your Masters

Earning a postgraduate qualification in the US or the UK won’t automatically grant you the right to work in either country. However, both offer post-study work options for Masters graduates.

In the UK, you’ll be able to apply for a Graduate Route Visa. This will allow you to live and work in the UK for up to two years after completing your Masters. You won’t need a job offer to be eligible, and you can work in any field, at any salary level. After two years, you’ll need to apply for a new visa in order to remain in the UK (usually this will be a Skilled Worker visa).

It can be a little trickier to secure a work permit after graduation in the USA. Usually, you’ll need to apply for a new permanent or temporary worker’s visa.

However, the US government also allows students apply for Optional Practical Training (OPT), which is a period of temporary employment in a field directly related to your area of study. Authorization to complete OPT is valid for 12 months, which can be used either during or after your course. If completed post-graduation, this essentially amounts to a one-year extension of your student visa in order to gain work experience in your field of expertise. Graduates of certain STEM programmes can also apply to extend the OPT period for up to two years.

Of course, once you’ve completed a Masters in either the US or the UK, you’ll also be in an excellent position to apply for a PhD programme.

Search for Masters programmes in the USA and UK

We list lots of Masters programmes in the USA and the UK — why not begin your search today?

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Last updated: 15 December 2022