I have seen the words college and university sometimes mixed in the same article. But there are lots of sources where only one is used. I've looked up them in various dictionaries, but couldn't figure out the difference in their meaning. So, what is the difference (of meaning) that justifies the above findings regarding their usage?

  • In the US,they can often mean the same thing.However,college has a few other meanings.It may also mean a place for education which students attend at the age of 16.Also,college may mean one of the separate and named parts into which a university is divided.Example-King's College,Cambridge.It means a few other things as well.Source-Cambridge Advanced Learner's Dictionary.
    – rahul
    Commented Mar 19, 2014 at 17:52
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    Did you try wikipedia? Commented Mar 19, 2014 at 17:54
  • General reference. Google "college vs. university". See here, for example. Commented Mar 19, 2014 at 18:07
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    I think the usage is regional. In Canada, generally-speaking -- Colleges are where you earn diplomas or certificates and Universities are where you go to earn degrees. Most college programs are around 2 years long while universities start with 4-year bachelor degrees. However, the US seems to use the terms interchangeably. Commented Mar 19, 2014 at 18:25
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    Subdivision of UK universities into colleges is variously done. At Oxford and Cambridge the colleges were (and to a large extent still are) residential. So if you are in, let's say, Trinity, reading maths you will live close to, dine with and to some extent socialise with students of law, economics, history and a wide range of arts and science courses. At London the colleges are more closely identified by discipline, Imperial - science & engineering; LSE - economics and political science; Kings - humanities and law; Goldsmiths - music and fine art; University - medicine and much else etc.
    – WS2
    Commented Mar 19, 2014 at 18:53

4 Answers 4


Both the definitions of "college" and "university" and the meanings of the idioms in which those words appear (e.g. "to go to college", "to attend university"), differ by country (including native-English-speaking countries), so it would be very difficult to give you a good answer here.

I'm afraid the best I can do is refer you to the Wikipedia article College.


It's complex. College as a noun without an article refers to one's undergraduate studies in US English, where most other English speakers (and most other European languages) use uni or university. In that sense university is, for an international audience, a better choice.

It can also, in the US, refer specifically to a tertiary educational institution (as in, "liberal arts college" or "community college") that has the right to issue one or more of bachelor's, master's, or associate's degrees, but not doctorates - a school able to issue doctorates is a university. This concept of college is rather American and difficult to translate even to people in other English speaking countries.

It can also refer to a division of a university, either along lines of disciplines (such as, "College of Arts and Sciences"), or simply smaller groups of students and/or faculty (such as the constituent colleges of Oxford or Cambridge).

Finally, it can refer to a formal group of peers with special rights or characteristics, such as the College of Cardinals of the Catholic Church, the Royal College of Surgeons, or the College of Engineers and Surveyors of Puerto Rico. This use has nothing to do with higher education, although educational attainment may be a necessary or sole requirement for admittance.

  • There are plenty of liberal arts colleges which grant Ph.D.s; the name of the institution by and large bears no relation to its accreditations.
    – choster
    Commented Mar 19, 2014 at 19:59

A college confers a bachelor degree (usually a four-year program) - a BA (Bachelor of Arts) or BS (Bachelor of Science). There are institutions that offer only bachelor degrees. Universities offer, in addition, a master or a doctoral degree. Colleges are often integrated into universities. So, you can get a BA or BS at a university, but you cannot get an MA or PhD at a college.

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    This is often the distinction in the US, but in the UK, a "College" is often a secondary school. Also, in both the US and UK, a "college" is often a subdivision of a university; and there are some universities that for historical reasons have the word "college" in their name but not "university." Commented Mar 19, 2014 at 18:26
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    This was a historical convention in the U.S. but was never universally true, and has not been practically true for a long time. Dartmouth College's medical school was founded in 1797. And even "classic" liberal arts colleges like Swarthmore and Smith have offered masters and Ph.D. programs for decades now.
    – choster
    Commented Mar 19, 2014 at 19:56
  • outis nihil, no. In the UK, the word college is often used as a synonym for sixth form. Secondary schools are just called secondary schools. You would benefit from reading the definitions at this link dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/british/college_1?q=college
    – Tristan r
    Commented Aug 14, 2014 at 20:25

The historic answer is an institution may be called a university when it contains at least 4 colleges. It does not have to confer doctoral degrees to be a university; moverover, there are separate individual graduate and professional schools of various disciplines that confer Master's and Doctor's degrees.

  • Welcome to EL&U :-). The information you gave sounds really interesting, but the answer would be much better if you could corroborate it with references. You can always edit your answer to add sources. Thanks!
    – Lucky
    Commented Apr 3, 2017 at 7:41

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