What’s the Difference Between a College and a University?

What’s the Difference Between a College and a University?

What’s the difference between calling a school “college” and calling it a “university”? It’s a simple question but a lot of people don’t actually know. Here’s a handy guide to learning the differences between institutions: 

Liberal Arts College

These days, many people assume that the word “liberal” has a political meaning, but in this context the word is more closely tied to the term “liberty” as in, free and unrestricted. In an educational sense, this means that a student’s education is not limited to one particular area. Instead, students are exposed to a variety of ideas and subjects and are not necessarily taught how to specialize, but rather how to think. One of the original philosophies of higher education was the belief that a college education is meant to prepare students for a lifetime of being able to think through problems and situations.

Liberal arts colleges tend to be small, teaching-focused schools that work to provide undergrads with a broad education. The top 10 ranked liberal arts colleges (according to U.S. News & World Report) are (alphabetically): Amherst College, Bowdoin College, Carleton College, Claremont McKenna, Davidson, Middlebury, Pomona, Swarthmore, Wellesley, and Williams.

Research Universities

At the other end of the spectrum is what is officially known as the “research university” (or more colloquially, just ‘university’). These schools can be large or small, public or private, but the main thing that they all have in common is that faculty members prioritize research.

They will teach also, but research tends to be the main focus. Larger universities typically will also house several smaller schools, such as schools in arts, engineering, communications, and more. Some of the most well-known research universities are: Princeton, Harvard, Yale, Columbia, University of Pennsylvania, University of Michigan, University of Wisconsin, MIT, Cornell and Stanford.

What’s in a Name?

When researching to create your college list, you’ll need to be sure to dig deeper than just a school’s name to determine whether or not it’s a college or university. Schools like Harvard College and College of William and Mary are in fact universities while schools like Colgate University, and Wesleyan University are actually colleges. 

Any other questions? Let us know!

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