Should you choose to go to college or university in the United States?


In this short article, I will try to clear up some of the confusion over the use of “college” and “university” in the US. Many people have written about community (also called junior) colleges – the two-year institutions that can award associates degrees – so I won’t be discussing those. I want to talk about four-year institutions that award bachelor’s degrees.

It seems in many cases that these two terms are interchangeable. There is the College Board that handles the SAT and supplies information about colleges and universities. On my desk I have “The Best 379 Colleges 2015” by The Princeton Review and “Fiske Guide to Colleges 2014” and others that are mainly talking about universities. So why do they use the word “college”?

A very general explanation of the difference (with some exceptions) is that universities are institutions that offer undergraduate and graduate programs focused on research and scholarship. Colleges are sections within the university that focus on undergraduates and four year degrees; or, are separate institutions that offer mainly four-year degrees. The University of California at Berkeley, for example, has a College of Letters & Science, a College of Engineering, and a College of Natural Resources, among others.

So, in common every day usage in the United States, the word “college” refers to a student’s Sarjana 1 years, or undergraduate study. So in a generic sense, you can go to “college” at Stanford University, the University of Texas or Boston College. What can make things confusing, however, is that there are no written rules about this naming system. So a school like Boston College is really a university since they added graduate programs long ago but wanted to keep their name as it was. And some institutions that mostly function as colleges wanted to have the word “university” in their name. So confusion is common.

Does it matter at all whether you choose an institutional “college” focused on undergraduate education or a “university” that focuses on undergraduates as well as graduates with colleges (or “schools”) within the campus? Yes, there are differences. For example, let’s look at a four-year college that is not part of a university. It’s likely to be smaller than a university and every student you meet will be an undergraduate like yourself. Your classes will be smaller and almost all of the faculty will be focusing on teaching undergraduates, not research. Many students report a greater feeling of community and belonging than they do at large universities.

What about joining a college within a large university? That would provide a different experience. The number of students on campus would be much greater. Some of the UC schools like UCSD try to house students in the same college in common dorms and try to build smaller communities in different ways. But every student knows they are part of a huge institution. With many graduate students on campus, you are very likely to be taught by teaching assistants in some classes. In fact, you may not have any professors until you begin your higher division courses.

But there is a positive with this as well. The university may have professors who are Nobel Prize winners and some who may be involved in exciting research. Undergraduates can often take graduate level courses in areas that interest them and possibly even be able to work in labs along with graduate students. As an undergraduate in Microbiology, I had the privilege of working in a graduate Zoology lab seeking a cure for a deadly parasitic disease. It was the highlight of my undergraduate studies!

So there are differences between colleges and colleges/schools within universities and each has positives and negatives. A student thinking about studying in the US should think about whether they fit into one type of school better than the other. Regardless, both types of institutions will give you great opportunities and experiences and of course, a bachelor’s degree at the end of your studies.


Photo by Sean MacEntee


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