What’s the difference between Universities and Colleges in the US?

When googling higher education institutes in the US, you might ask yourself whether you want to go to a “college” or a “university” because your search results will show both these terms. Well, this quick read will clear up the confusion for you. The two terms are often used interchangeably in the US so let’s understand the differences between the two words. You wouldn’t want to overlook institutions and miss out on great opportunities because you chose to look at only one of these terms.

While both institution types offer undergraduate education, you should know what both of them are to decide which type of education to pursue. So, let’s look at the key differences between colleges and universities in the US.


Universities are public or private institutions that offer both undergraduate and graduate degrees. Paired with their lively and diverse environments, these institutions usually have spacious campuses and a variety of program offerings.

While applying to US universities, you must note if they are public or private. This is because public universities commonly enroll tens of thousands of students, and private universities are typically smaller and more selective. For instance, Texas A&M University — a large public institution — enrolls over 70,000 students, whereas Princeton University — a highly regarded Ivy League school — serves just 8,000 students.

Universities are also great places for students interested in research, as they have an impressive array of facilities and labs to support these efforts. Many schools, like Johns Hopkins University and Stanford University, carry official research designations and spend billions of dollars annually on research and development.

Pros of Universities

  • You can choose from an array of programs and courses that align with your skills, passions, and career path.
  • Universities come with incredibly diverse campuses, where you can meet and work with students, faculty, and staff from different backgrounds.
  • You can gain a rich, dynamic learning experience as universities are led by highly reputable professors – most of whom are experts in their fields.
  • Earning a bachelor’s or graduate degree can open up more lucrative professional opportunities.

Cons of Universities

  • Universities are expensive. The total costs of attending a four-year university — including tuition, fees, room, board, and books can leave you in substantial student loan debt.
  • Because of the high volume of students, along with the limited number of faculty and classroom availability in public universities, it can be difficult to secure a place as the competition is tough.
  • The magnanimity of universities is not for everyone. Some students feel lost or isolated in the bustling communities, especially in classes with dozens of students.


Colleges often feature smaller student populations, more intimate campuses, and fewer program offerings than universities. These institutions are four-year schools offering small class sizes, low student-to-faculty ratios, and undergraduate-focused studies.

You will find different kinds of colleges that differ in their approach to education. For example, liberal arts colleges take a broad approach by emphasizing the importance of studying an array of academic subjects. By contrast, other colleges may include programs for one specific discipline, such as engineering, graphic design, or visual arts.

Some colleges are technically universities but use the term “college” because a university already exists with the same name. For example, while the College of Charleston includes the term “college” in its name, it’s technically a public liberal arts and sciences university.

College can also refer to community, vocational, and technical colleges. While a small number of these institutions offer bachelor’s degrees, most award only associate’s degrees and certificates.

  • Liberal Arts College

  • Contrary to what you may think, liberal arts colleges provide a diverse education to students. Subjects offered generally include the humanities, math, and art. These colleges focus on equipping you with transferable skills needed across a number of industries rather than preparing you for a specific job.

    The US education system works differently from what you are used to in India. A liberal arts education does not focus exclusively on the humanities. Though this discipline remains integral to the liberal arts curriculum, most liberal arts colleges offer degrees in several other fields, such as chemistry and music.

  • Community College

  • Also referred to as junior colleges, community colleges are two-year schools that primarily award associate degrees and certificates. They have affordable tuition, small class sizes, and more individualized classroom settings.

    Many students choose to complete their general education requirements at a local community college before transferring to a four-year university to pursue a bachelor’s degree.

  • Technical/Vocational College

  • Technical and vocational colleges — also known as trade schools — are two-year colleges that provide specialized training for specific career fields. These institutions are known for their intensive programs, smaller campuses, and lower tuition rates.

    Trade schools focus entirely on developing skills and knowledge needed for a particular trade. Keep in mind that technical college graduates often receive associate degrees,
    whereas vocational graduates primarily earn certificates.

Pros of Colleges

  • Community college tuition is much more affordable as it costs a fraction of a four-year university.
  • You will have more time to consider degree options while enrolled in a two-year college.
  • Small class sizes allow for more personalized instruction and assistance from faculty.

Cons of Colleges

  • Two-year colleges tend to feature limited curricula and do not offer the same variety of courses and programs as universities.
  • Due to the limited options for financial aid, small liberal arts colleges can be more expensive than larger universities.
  • Small colleges may not offer the same resources or diversity of people and studies as a larger university.

As a prospective international student, you should keep your options open by applying to different types of institutions in the U.S. By researching and learning about your options, you can find the right fit for yourself. If an institution interests you or just sounds really exciting, even if it’s not what you had in mind, keep it in the mix and see where it goes!

To explore more options to study in the US, start a co-design conversation with Gradstar

Date Published: Jun-23-2022

Our Dream Makers are expert listeners, educators, career consultants and student supporters. They co-design your study abroad experience with you to empower you to reach for the stars. Because dreams deserve a helping hand.

About the author

Anupama Kumar is a content writer based in Bangalore, India. She writes blogs, stories, articles and social media content and has a passion for helping people and connecting with them through her writing. A professional writer by day and a creative one by night, her own stories, musings, quotes and poems inspired by her travels are also published on various platforms.