“College” vs. “University”: Are They Synonyms?

It doesn’t matter if you have a high school diploma or more advanced degree, there’s one thing related to education that may confuse you: the difference between college and university. Is the only thing that distinguishes them in name only? Or do colleges and universities offer distinct educations or philosophies? Let’s take a closer look to see if these nouns are actually synonyms or just commonly mixed-up words.

What does university mean?

University is defined as an institution of higher learning “that can have a college of liberal arts as well as a program of graduate studies together with several professional schools.” These could include schools of theology, law, medicine, and engineering, for example, that offer both undergraduate and graduate degrees. Universities can be larger in terms of enrollment and number of degree programs than other institutions, especially if they are public or state schools, but this isn’t the case for all.

For example:

  • She was the first in her family to study at a university.
  • Before applying to a variety of universities, he had to take into account the difference between in-state and out-of-state tuition.
  • She got lost walking across the university’s campus and mistook the law building for the business school’s complex.

University dates back to 1250–1300. It can traced to the Latin word universus, which literally means “turned into one.” This developed into abstract nouns used to refer to whole entities or bodies, like universe (also from the same root). Varsity is a colloquial abbreviation for university. Synonyms for university include academy, educational institution, and college.

What does college mean?

College is a noun that refers to “an institution of higher learning, especially one providing a general or liberal arts education rather than technical or professional training.” A culinary institute that trains chefs is not a college or university–it is considered professional training. But an institution like Harvard can be referred to as both a university and college. And that’s because in American English, college is commonly used as the general way to refer to higher education and its related experiences.

For example:

  • She was the first in her family to attend a four-year college.
  • While in college, she made lifelong friends and connections that benefited her for years to come both personally and professionally.
  • His parents feared that a university would be too big for him, and that he would adjust better if he enrolled at a smaller college.

College can also refer to an institution “for vocational, technical, or professional instruction, as in medicine, pharmacy, agriculture, or music, often a part of a university” or “a constituent unit of a university, furnishing courses of instruction in the liberal arts and sciences, usually leading to a bachelor’s degree.” And here’s where the difference between college and university gets tricky: there can be distinct colleges within a university. For example, a university can have a College of Engineering, College of Medicine, and College of Music, all with their own admission requirements. For example: He was admitted into the university’s College of Arts and Sciences and planned to pursue a degree in sociology.

Some higher education institutions are referred to as liberal arts colleges, as well. These institutions are distinctly different from universities. Instead of specializing in a specific subject, a liberal arts college offers students an education on a broader range of topics and can be appealing to those who aren’t ready to specialize in one area early on. For example: Since she didn’t have specific career goals, she enrolled in a liberal arts college that allowed her to explore her many interests.

College was first recorded around 1350–1400, and it is ultimately derived from the Latin word coll?gium (“community, society, guild”). Collegium means an “association, a partnership” (literally, “a body of colleagues”). Colleague comes from the same root. Synonyms for college include association, institute, lyceum, organization, seminary.

Ready to pursue higher education? Here are our tips for writing a stellar college (or university) application essay.

How to use each

Yes, college and university are synonyms as they both refer to places of higher education, but they’re not always interchangeable. That is because even though you can typically get a four-year undergraduate degree from both colleges and universities, they do have some differences.

Colleges are typically smaller and tend to focus more on undergraduate degrees with core curriculums, according to U.S. News & World Report, while universities are often much larger, with a focus on specialized undergraduate and graduate programs.

Although there can be colleges within a university, it doesn’t work the other way around, and colleges can also be distinctly separate from universities.

For example:

  • As she walked through the quad at Syracuse University, she passed by the College of Visual and Performing Arts, the business school, and the library.
  • He chose a university with a strong pre-med program and declared his specialized major from day one.
  • She decided to do her first two years at community college while working on her grades and saving money before transferring to the state university for her final two years.

As you can see, another distinction between colleges and universities is that colleges can also refer to a community college, a nonresidential junior college that typical offers two-year programs.

College vs. university in American and British English  

There’s one more distinction to note: as noted, in American English, college is commonly used as the general way to refer to higher education, e.g., She graduated from college or He is back form college break. In British English, university is frequently used as the catch-all term, usually without an article, e.g., Where is she going to university next yearUniversity is a common informal shortening, as in He is off to uni soon. 

So although it can be confusing, and you may feel like you need a college (or university!) degree to keep it straight, just remember: although the words college and university are similar and can be interchanged depending on the context, they also have their own specific meanings. Just ask a proud alumnus about their college or university, and they’ll surely explain—and maybe drone on and on about—just what makes their alma mater unique.

While we're on the subject of education, do you know the difference between "didactic" and "pedantic"?

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