Recently a CISL student from San Diego asked a great question: “What is the difference between the words ‘college’ and ‘university’?” The definitions of these two words differ around the world. In America, the words are used interchangeably; however, there are some differences worth noting.

The definition of “college”

A college is a school students attend after high school. (The term for school after high school is “post-secondary.”) Colleges can have programs that are shorter than “traditional” four-year programs, and colleges include vocational schools, which are schools that teach students a trade like computer programming or mechanics.

The most popular colleges are community colleges, which are schools that offer a two-year degree called an Associate’s Degree. Compared to university or four-year colleges, community colleges are much cheaper. Many students choose to save money by attending a community college for two years; after they graduate, they transfer to a four-year college or university for another two years to complete a Bachelor’s Degree.

Liberal arts schools that teach arts-based curriculum (instead of a curriculum of many subjects, like math and science and history) are also considered colleges.

As you can see, there are many types of schools that can be called “colleges” in the United States. Now, lets take a look at what makes a school a “university.”

The definition of “university”

Like college, a university is a school students attend after high school. Although there is a not an “official” definition of the word “university” for the United States, it is generally thought to be a larger school that is a collection of smaller colleges. Each college focuses on a specific area; for example, if you attend a university and want to receive a Bachelor’s Degree in Engineering, you are part of the College of Engineering. Your requirements for graduation might be different than your friend, who is studying History and is in another college.

Universities are often research institutes as well. The schools receive funding (called grants) to research different subjects. Most professors are expected to carry out research and teach classes, so university professors often have a reputation for being inaccessible compared to four-year college or community college professors.

The use of the word “college”

The differences between colleges and universities are slight, but important. But the problem is how Americans use the two terms: although someone might go to a university, he or she will say “when I was in college” because “college” is a term used collectively for the experience of studying at a post-secondary school. Americans also use the word “school” when speaking of their time studying after high school, and some universities in the U.S. have official names that include “Institute” and “Academy.” These terms can be confusing for students!

As it turns out, this is also confusing for most of the rest of the English-speaking world. The words “college” and “university” may be used interchangeably in the United States, but in all other English-speaking countries except the U.S. Ireland, there are big differences between these two words. So if you are confused about the differences between the two, always make sure to first ask yourself about the country in which these schools are located.