Do You Know the Difference Between a College and University?

When I’ve been giving college presentations lately, I’ve begun asking the members of the audience this question:
How many people here know the difference between a college and a university?
It’s rare that even one person raises his or her hand. Yikes. I think it’s important to understand the distinctions before exploring a student’s higher-ed choices. Consequently, I’m going to rerun a few posts that I wrote last year that I hope will help you and others understand the different types of schools available. Here is the first one:

The 4 Types of Colleges and Universities

Here’s one of my biggest pet peeves about how teenagers look for colleges:
When teenagers put together a list of potential colleges, a campus size requirement is often way up at the top of their criteria.

  • I want to go to a big school.
  • I don’t want to go to small school.
  • I’m interested in a medium-sized school.

Hardly anyone questions teenagers for focusing on size. In fact, many high school counselors tell kids to look at size when evaluating schools. The reason why I’m writing about this today is because a father emailed me last week and mentioned that his son only wants to go to a medium-sized school (5,000 to 10,000 students) on the East Coast.
Why, you might be wondering, does this size thing bug me? It’s because when kids evaluate colleges by size they are missing a much larger factor that should go into their college admission decisions. When teens and parents ask how big a school is, they rarely ask what is its educational mission.
In my mind, a school’s mission is far more important than its size. There is a link, however, between a school’s mission and size that is important to consider when evaluating schools.

Major Categories of Colleges and Universities

There are four main categories of four-year colleges and universities:

Research universities

If a kid is most interested in a big school, state flagship universities are an obvious choice.  Among the biggest in this category are Arizona State (68,064 students), Ohio State (55,014), University of Washington (45,943), Penn State (45,198) and University of Arizona (38,767).  Private research universities are typically smaller. Harvard, for instance, has 10,400 undergrad and graduate students.

Master’s degree universities

In this category you’ll find medium-sized state schools, as well as private universities. Examples of private master’s degree universities include Villanova University (PA), Santa Clara University (CA), Creighton University (NE), Emerson College (MA), The Citadel (SC) and Rollins College (FL). Plenty of state universities fall into this category, including College of New Jersey, Rowan University (NJ), James Madison University (VA) and SUNY-Geneseo (NY).

Liberal Arts Colleges

Most liberal arts colleges are private, but there are public liberal arts colleges too. When teens say they don’t want to go to a small school they are typically eliminating these from contention. Most private liberal arts colleges have less than 2,000 students. Private liberal arts colleges include such schools as Vassar College  (NY), Whitman College (WA), Washington and Lee (VA) and Kalamazoo College (MI). Both of my children attend liberal arts colleges — Juniata College (PA) and Beloit College (WI). Public liberal arts colleges include Truman State (MO) University, New College of Florida, Evergreen State University (WA), Sonoma State University (my nephew attends) and the University of North Carolina, Asheville.

Specialty colleges

These are typically as small as liberal arts colleges. They focus on one area of expertise such as business or art. Schools in this category include Curtis Institute of Music (PA), Rhode Island School of Design, Ringling College of Art and Design (FL), Babson College (MA), Bentley College (MA) and Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology (IN).

More on Each Type of School

In my following posts, you’ll learn what the missions of each of these schools are. When you understand what they can offer, you might not be so quick to fixate on size.

What is a Research University?

What is a Small College?

What is a Medium-Sized University?

Bottom Line:

If you look primarily at size when looking for schools, you face a high risk of eliminating some wonderful opportunities.
Lynn O’Shaughnessy is the author of The College Solution, an Amazon bestseller, and she also write a college blog for CBSMoneyWatch. Follow her on Twitter.

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  1. I do not mean to disregard the work put into the article and the information it provides, however the author either did not properly title this article, or they just did not properly answer the question posed. The author also appears to be incapable of taking unanimous feedback into account.
    The author, in passive aggressively replying to unsatisfied readers that it “only takes a nanosecond to click the links” has ultimately failed to see that they were the one who did not properly lay out the information people came to this article to see.
    There is a saying: “The customer is always right.”
    I believe in this instance, it is safe to say every single “customer” is right.
    All this said, I believe this article still has an important message. It’s a shame the author failed to properly title it.

  2. I agree with everyone else. I think the author must have ADD. She was transitioning from topic to topic but good article none the less. Good enough article to keep me reading through the entire thing, though.

  3. I only have high-speed Internet, and it does not take a nanosecond to click on a link and get to the opened page. Usually, it takes a few seconds for the page to open up – sometimes longer. (Not too many things in the real world take a nanosecond, since a nanosecond is one billionth of a second..)
    Regardless of whether it takes a nanosecond or a few seconds to get a page from a link to open up, what counts is the time it will take to study the page, which would certainly last longer than mere seconds. If an article promises to deliver an answer to a specific question, the answer should clearly be provided within the article. Links may be used to embellish various points, but it is a poor author who expects her or his reader to let the links do the answering. (We have plenty of such links we can otherwise make use of, by posing the question in a search engine.)
    The first link I traveled to, courtesy of Google, was Yahoo Answers – where someone tried to tackle the question in a very comprehensive manner. ( As I read through the explanation, I kept thinking, that’s not true… that’s not true. The college I attended, which had “college” as part of its name and forming a part of New York City’s CUNY (City University of New York – already we can get the sense from this very acronym that colleges and universities are basically interchangeable) was very university like. As I read through the distinctions presented in Yahoo Answers, I was drawing upon my college experience, and few claims rang true. ( also attended a university – NYU – during my undergraduate experience, and nothing significantly different was offered there, as compared to the college. (Except for the tuition being far more expensive.)
    (By the way, I very much appreciated the comment left by “Bill” a few months ago; he got exactly to the heart of the matter by relating his personal college vs. university experience.)
    My next visit on the glorious Internet was this page – which offered only one helpful tip, and in the comments section – where the author plainly wrote, “A university offers master’s degrees and doctoral degrees and a college typically offers just bachelor’s degrees.” Judging from other pages I have visited (such as one featured at, by Kelci Lynn Lucier), I suppose that’s what the difference generally boils down to. Not that the other suggestions are necessarily untrue, given that there are some rinky-dink colleges out there that can’t come close to what most of us would think of as a university. (By the same token, there are rinky-dink universities, as well, no doubt, that the average college may put to shame.)
    Although even this main distinction (bachelor’s versus master’s or Ph.Ds) does not hold true in the college that I attended, and undoubtedly in other colleges as well. My conclusion is that once upon a time the meaning of a college was intended to be distinct from the meaning of a university, but the differences have blurred to such a degree, they have become meaningless. The two words may practically be used synonymously.

  4. I’m a college prof and I don’t see and answer. My criterion is that if a TA has to come ask me, then it’s unclear. We shouldn’t expect more of our students than their teachers.

  5. I think more than “not answering the question” somebody looking for information about school size considerations may overlook this article, which contains valuable information on that subject. As you said, you have many years’ worth of information here, so the more clearly labeled it is the less visitors will have to slog through less-relevant posts to get what they’re seeking.

  6. I’m with Susan. Your post title specifies a question that you then fail to answer. You have a lot of links in the article, none of which appear (from their text) to directly provide the answer either. #fail

    1. Gwen, The posts includes links to all the relevant posts. All you need to do is click. It will take you a nanosecond. Yikes.
      Lynn O’Shaughnessy

      1. Hi Lynn – have just discovered your EXCELLENT site through the great folks at Navigo Consulting with wonderful links that are well worth the nano-second or (gasp!) two it takes to access.
        I am writing from Canada for my son who is looking at Colleges in the US. It seems a mighty bewildering process for an International student but I get a sense, judging from the helpful titles on your blog, that it is just as confusing for local kids and their parents. We have narrowed things down considerably but I only wish I had used US based expertise from the get-go. Keep up the great work…and parents?take the time to ‘click’ the links!

  7. I disagree with what you say. There may be tons of great schools out there – but focusing on size is one way to help narrow down you choices (the others being cost and location). My son attends a 5000 student high school – he is also very much a “rah rah” kid – so a small school (w/no “team spirit”) would make him unhappy, no matter how stellar the academics might be. He knows he’d like to be somewhere w/at least 15000+ students – and at a school w/a decent football or basketball team that he can cheer for. Add in location (I don’t want him more than a 5 hour drive away) and cost – well, we’re lucky we live in a state w/good (albeit really large)public schools. As for the difference between college and university – based on all I’ve read, there is none, nowadays. Some colleges offer as much or more than universities, so in the USA, the words are synonomous, aren’t they?

    1. Did you click on the links to the post that further explain the differences. They are right in the post above.
      Lynn O’Shaughnessy

      1. Then this post did not answer the question. I should not have to click on links to have the question of the article answered.

        1. Susan, If you really want the answer then taking a nano second to click on a link should not be onerous. I have four years worth of FREE information on my site and I am sorry if I didn’t serve it up the way you’d prefer.
          Lynn O’Shaughnessy

          1. Hi Lynn,
            I was looking for a very simple answer to the question, “Is there really a fundamental difference between a school with college instead of university in its name?”
            Or, more to my particular case, “Does a school need to change anything specific to move from being called a college to being called a university?’
            Twelve (or so) years ago, my daughter was accepted at Queens College in Charlotte. The following fall, she started classes at Queens University in Charlotte.
            As far as I know, the school got no bigger, added no additional programs, etc. It appeared to me that it simply changed its name so that it would sound bigger and, maybe, charge more tuition.
            Later that year, my other daughter was accepted into Flagler College, in St. Augustine which has remained Flagler College (not University) to this day.
            Both are very small (about 1,00 students), private schools. I didn’t see much difference in them.
            It has to be more than size, otherwise we would not be looking at Queens “University” with about 2,400 students and Boston College with over 14,000.
            So, do you know the answer?

    2. My Father in law is a retired mathematics professor. Recently his College became a University. When I asked him what gave his school the new designation… he immediately responded that a University offers Post graduate programs, specifically Doctorate degrees. It may also include MBA ans MBS.

      1. A university offers master’s degrees and doctoral degrees and a college typically offers just bachelor’s degrees.
        Lynn O’Shaughnessy

        1. This is not always the case. I attend a private college in Oakland, California (Mills College). Mills offers several master’s degree programs. A more accurate differentiation between a college and a university is a matter of size. A college is an institution of higher education that can stand alone. However, a single college can also make up a part of a university. Universities are comprised of different colleges. For example: Mills College stands alone as a college, but UC Berkeley is comprised of 14 difference colleges and schools (College of Letters and Science, Haas school of business, College of Chemistry, College of Engineering, School of Law, etc.).