Difference Between a College And University

The difference between colleges and universities is not a purely semantic one. A college and a university are supposed to be different in principle. However, in some countries they may mean the same thing, while in others they may not. Naming things has no absolute rules in all human fields of endeavor. People familiar with the English language know that words have ambiguous meanings and they may have different meanings according to the context in which they are used. Similarly, when looking at the difference, one has to see context of the location, where they are situated.

Semantic Difference

The word college comes from the Latin word ‘collegium’, connotes a group of people living together by choice, for a common purpose. That’s why, members of some colleges are called ‘fellows’. Today the word college is most exclusively used to denote an educational institution, which offers various degree level courses. However, the term can be more widely used, to denote a group of people like an ‘electoral college’ or a ‘college of cardinals’.

As educational institutions, in terms of stages of learning, colleges are intermediate stages between schools and universities. There are community colleges in USA which mostly offer diplomas, certificate level courses and 4 year degrees. One must know how to choose a college, according to one’s career interests. In some countries, the terms may be used interchangeably.

The word ‘University’ has its origin in Latin as ‘universitas magistrorum et scholarium ‘, meaning a group of teachers and scholars living together in pursuit of knowledge or a place of learning. The term ‘University’ is used today to denote advanced institutions of higher learning, offering learning and research opportunities. Usually, like in USA, universities grow out of aggregation of small colleges (offering specialized education). Universities usually offer a wider spectrum of courses, compared to colleges, ranging over arts, science and commerce. Universities offer 4 years graduate courses as well as graduate school courses leading to a doctorate. Life in a university is more demanding than college life. The difference primarily lies in the number of academic subjects and level of specialization offered in each institution. That’s what separates colleges from universities in most countries of the world. However, this may not be the case in every country. In some cases college and university mean the same thing.


In USA, the terms college and university are synonymous. There are some colleges here which in spite of being called colleges offer courses in a wide variety of subjects and are empowered to offer diplomas, degree courses, as well as doctorate degrees. The purpose of college education is to prepare a student for a career in the real world outside. Universities abound in USA as it boasts of some of best in the world like (to name a few) Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Cornell, Stanford and Harvard university.

In Canada

In Canada, the difference is quite clear. Colleges offer short vocational course that teach specific kinds of trades. They offer associate degrees in arts ad sciences. The colleges in Canada usually have smaller class size and the professors are more focused on teaching than research. So in short, Canadian colleges are sort of, intermediate steps between college and university. Universities here offer research opportunities leading to a doctorate.

In UK and Commonwealth Countries

In United Kingdom and most of the countries which are included in the commonwealth nations, the difference between college and universities, is very well-defined. Colleges are subsidiary, specialized institutes of learning under the aegis of a university. A college comes under the affiliation of university. Courses are taught in colleges, but the degree is granted by the university. University is the parent body and colleges adhere to its rules. Besides the colleges under its affiliation, a university in UK may have its own separate subject departments, devoted to research.

In terms of level of rigor, courses in universities are more research oriented and the faculty there has research funding for various projects. To sum up, if colleges are rivers, universities are oceans of knowledge. Wisdom however, can only be garnered through experience in life.

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