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STUDY ABROAD : Destination Guides - Must read

What is the difference between college and university?

You’re probably aware that there are a few differences between the types of higher education institutions you can study at. We take a look at what sets universities and colleges apart.

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If you’ve been investigating your study abroad options, you’ll likely have come across institutions that are named as a university or a college respectively. You might even be a bit confused as to the difference between a college and a university. This can also depend on the country in which you intend to study, notably the difference in definition between the UK and USA. We break it down for you to discover what the differences between these types of institutions are.


What is the difference between a college and a university in the UK?


Being an international student means that it’s sometimes necessary to get to grips with the education system in the country you intend to study in. While it’s one thing understanding the grading system in the UK, it’s another knowing how institutions are defined and set up. 


In the UK education system, as with many other countries, there is a clear distinction between secondary and higher education. It is at this point where universities and colleges diverge. A college is not the same as a university in the UK. The primary difference lies in the level and structure of education offered by each. 


  • Colleges primarily focus on further education, practical skills programmes and qualifications.
  • Universities are geared towards academic and professional degree study
  • Colleges may offer foundation degrees associated with particular universities.
  • Colleges often offer vocational degrees and are usually smaller than universities.
  • The number of courses and programmes on offer at universities is usually much greater than at colleges. 
  • Colleges do generally offer lower tuition fees than universities.
  • The majority of international students attend universities rather than colleges in the UK. 


Remember not to get confused with the definition of the word “college” when used in the context of a university. In this case, it is generally interchangeable and means the same as a “department”. For example, the College of Law. 


If you’re looking to study in the UK why not explore some of the institutions you could study with?



What is a Russell Group university?


If you have been looking at universities in the UK you would have come across some institutions that are identified as Russell Group universities. What exactly does this mean you ask? Well, the Russell Group of universities was established in 1994 and is made up of 24 of some of the top-ranked and highly acclaimed institutions in the UK. 


The universities that are part of the organisation have clear strategic imperatives that include world-class research, sustainability, accessibility, attracting international student talent and building meaningful international partnerships. The members of the Russell Group are:




What is the difference between a college and a university in the USA?


Working out what separates a university and college in the USA can be tricky. What makes it particularly challenging is that in American English and phraseology, people will refer to “attending college” when they mean they’re at university. That’s why it’s important to distinguish the colloquial use of the term and the actual designation of an institution.


There are a couple of factors that can determine whether an institution is classed as a college or university:


  • Colleges are usually smaller institutions, but this isn’t always the case.
  • Liberal arts colleges in the USA give students a broad spectrum of academic disciplines to choose from, including sciences. Liberal arts colleges are unique to the U.S. 
  • College may focus more on undergraduate education while universities offer more postgraduate options. 
  • The USA has both public and private universities. The former is largely funded by the government while the latter generally relies on private investment. 
  • Colleges offer shorter length qualifications while universities generally focus on degrees from three years full-time and above. 
  • The USA has a large number of two-year colleges which equip students with skills to proceed to a full university degree after graduation. 
  • People often refer to “college” for undergraduate studies and “university” for postgraduate studies in the USA. 


Remember that studying at a college is not inferior to studying at a university, which is often how it represented. Both are required to adhere to the necessary academic standards and hold the requisite accreditation. Further attending either a college or a university does not exclude you from attending the other at a later stage.


Have a look around some of the places you could study in the USA:



What is a community college?


One of the more common institutions that you will come across in the USA is community colleges. These are institutions of higher learning that are set up to first and foremost serve the local community, hence the name. Secondly, community colleges usually focus on shorter qualifications, mainly over two years. The aim is to prepare students to enter the workplace or to transfer to a four-year university degree. The qualifications on offer at a community college are usually certificates or associate degrees.


You will also find that community colleges are much smaller than universities in terms of the student cohort and campus size. There can be a difference in accommodation between a university and community college as well. Community colleges don’t generally offer a place for students to stay on campus, while universities have residence halls. There is however no difference in the academic rigour needed between a community college and a university, just differing levels of qualifications. 


What are Ivy League universities?


When researching studying in the USA or simply watching a series or TV show, you would have come across references to Ivy League universities. You’re probably wondering what they are? Ivy League universities are a grouping of institutions in the USA considered to be esteemed, respected and prestigious. They often have particularly exacting entry requirements for students and are known for producing high-quality alumni. Five of the Ivy League universities are placed within the top 20 globally according to the QS World University Rankings 2021. 


The group of Ivy League institutions began with eight members in 1954, namely:


  • Dartmouth College 
  • Yale University 
  • Brown University 
  • Cornell University 
  • University of Pennsylvania 
  • Columbia University 
  • Princeton University 
  • Harvard University 


Other institutions are sometimes considered on par with the original Ivy League members such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Caltech and Johns Hopkins University.  


What you will find is that Ivy League universities tend to be more expensive, with higher tuition fees, than other private institutions and tend to have significant resources and investments. This allows for expansive and academic programmes. The Ivy League universities are also well-known for their athletic teams who participate in the NCAA first division. 


Now that you have cleared up any confusion about the differences between colleges and universities it’s time to look for your perfect study abroad match using our course matcher tool. Don’t forget to also have a read of our guide to applying to university in the UK and applying in the USA.


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