When someone in the US says "When I was in college..." he can mean "college" but he can also mean "university", so I've been told. If that's true, how can we know which one he is talking about? If I say my daughter is off to college, can it really mean either one?

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    If somebody says "when I was in college", it means that he was working towards a bachelor's degree. Does it matter whether he was at an institution that calls itself a "college", a "university", an "institute", or a "school"? Jun 23, 2014 at 23:57
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    @Luis what do you understand to be the difference between "college" and "university"? Your question is probably confusing a lot of Americans because we're not aware of the difference, or at least can't understand why one might want to distinguish between the two cases.
    – David Z
    Jun 24, 2014 at 2:32
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    A note to Americans, in some parts of the world "college" means "senior high". You certainly don't go to college for a bachelors degree - you go to university for that. Then again, due to American influence I've started seeing newer places of higher education calling themselves "college" and offering bachelors and masters degree.
    – slebetman
    Jun 24, 2014 at 8:19
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    In Canada, a college is what we in the US call a community college, is more trade-oriented that academically oriented, and does not typically grant 4-year degrees. I don't know if there are Canadian equivalents to the liberal arts college that offers only undergraduate education, but grants bachelors degrees. Jun 24, 2014 at 12:49
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    In the US, there is a subset of post-secondary education called "junior colleges" or "community colleges", which grant only 2 year Associates degrees, and are usually non-residential (and frequently, students are part-time). An AA or AS degree is a bit more on the vocational training side than a general education (BA or BS) from a 4 year school. Anything 4 years and up can call itself whatever it wants to: college, institute, and university are the most common, with "school of..." not unknown.
    – Phil Perry
    Jun 24, 2014 at 17:22

8 Answers 8


While the OP specifies the US, some of the other answers are based on other countries. I'll respond mainly regarding the US, but I'll start with some comments regarding other countries. In many countries, college means secondary school, following on from primary school. It would never mean that to the average American.

Technically, a US college is a venue for obtaining post-high school (post-secondary) qualifications. It could be a 2-year degree, called an Associates degree, which may or may not be vocationally-based. You can get an AA or AS in welding, math, Spanish, etc. These colleges are usually known as community colleges.

The other type of college grants Bachelor's degrees (not to be confused with the bachillerato granted in many countries to what in the US would be called high school students, who are typically going on to what in the US would be called college). There are 4-year liberal arts colleges, and there are subject-oriented colleges (which are now rare).

In the US, a university would be composed of multiple colleges, including one or more bachelors colleges, as well as a grad school. You really have to offer a Masters degree to be able to call it a university.

Most Universities also offer Ph.D.s and possibly other advanced degrees (in the American academic world, we now call the MA and beyond terminal degrees), such as MD, JD, THD etc.

Some places, like Boston College, have chosen to keep College in their name, even though they are universities.

I would not say "I'm going to university"; I'd say "I'm in college" (though for my last degree I was actually taking classes in three colleges of the university).
I could say "I'm at the University of California", or "I go to Yale University", but not "I'm in university" (or "I'm in Uni") without it sounding a bit affected.

So if all I said was that my daughter was off to college, you wouldn't know if she was attending a small liberal arts school of 300 or a prestigious university, or even a local community college (but then why say she was "off to?") -- but you would know that she was studying at a level beyond high school.

People who are not in academia might use the term without knowing all these details.

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    Can you please add some paragraph breaks? Jun 24, 2014 at 23:35
  • Many people wonder why Boston College doesn't just change its name to Boston University. They forget that there is already a Boston University only a short distance from BC.
    – David K
    Jun 25, 2014 at 2:46
  • (Note that Boston University is in Boston; BC is not.)
    – Foon
    Jun 25, 2014 at 16:12
  • @PeterShor makes a great point that "Going to college" specifically refers to a Bachelor's program, not "grad school" or getting your associate's. Going for your associates is "going to school," where school is anywhere that offers an associates or certificates.
    – jfa
    Jun 25, 2014 at 18:32
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    TL;DR they just choose the same name for random different things (; Jun 25, 2014 at 22:00

In the US, there is little difference between a college and a university in common speech. Generally, institutes of higher learning with smaller student bodies call themselves colleges, while larger institutions call themselves universities, but the distinction is largely cosmetic. So you usually wouldn't know for sure, but that doesn't really matter.

In speech or writing, you would use college as the object of a preposition (e.g., "going to college") no matter whether the institution calls itself a college or a university; "going to university" would be understood, but sounds affected when spoken by a natural born American.

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    Would you say "going to college" even if you were going to medical school or law school ?
    – Centaurus
    Jun 24, 2014 at 1:06
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    @Luis - No, never; it would be "going to medical school" (or law school, or graduate school/grad school).
    – phenry
    Jun 24, 2014 at 1:09
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    I think the technical difference between a college and a university is supposed to be that the latter offers PhD's, while the former doesn't. Dunno if anyone actually observes this difference, mind you. (And now I see that Jeremy's answer makes exactly this point...)
    – Marthaª
    Jun 24, 2014 at 1:17
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    I went to a US University that had Institutes and Colleges in it. The four years were still 'going to college'.
    – Oldcat
    Jun 24, 2014 at 17:21
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    When I was studying for a bachelor's degree, I considered myself to be "going to college." I would never have said this at any time while studying for my master's or my Ph.D. While studying for those degrees I used to say I was "in grad school."
    – David K
    Jun 25, 2014 at 2:49

From a technical perspective, a university is a school of higher education that offers a graduate program, while a college does not. There are exceptions to this rule, but it mostly works.

In practice, though, these are seen as VERY SIMILAR academically in the US. In terms of my education, I can get a good education at a program that only offers a 4-year bachelors and I can also get a good education at a University that offers a post-graduate degree. I get the same education at either type of institution. That said, universities are seen as more prestigious because post-grad work creates the opportunities for research and in general, they will offer more programs and more variety of programs. That's why Americans don't see it as important to differentiate between which of the two schools they attended.

To answer your question, you cannot tell if someone went to a university or college based on a statement like "I'm in college" or "I went to college." However, if someone is talking about post-graduate work, they will say something like "In my post-grad..." or "For my masters..." In general, there's really no reason to care whether they went to a college or a university.

  • Would a physician or lawyer refer to his student years as "when I was in college" ? or would it be "university" ?
    – Centaurus
    Jun 24, 2014 at 1:12
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    It would be "med school" or "law school," respectively, unless he was referring to his time as an undergrad, and then it would usually be "college." Most people do not say "when I was at the university" in the US.
    – RaneWrites
    Jun 24, 2014 at 1:50
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    Where would "institute" fall in this spectrum? ;)
    – Izkata
    Jun 24, 2014 at 2:26
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    @Izkata: Probably somewhere around here. ;-) Jun 24, 2014 at 9:11
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    Harvard College is a part of Harvard University. If it were not for that fact, business at Harvard College would likely be conducted a lot differently than it is now. Even for Harvard, it's more prestigious to be a university.
    – David K
    Jun 25, 2014 at 2:56

I feel compelled to add a non-US answer, as these words have quite distinct meanings in the UK.

  • A University is a seat of research and tertiary (normally age 18-21) education, which awards degrees and postgraduate qualifications.

  • A College can be either a place of secondary (normally age 16-18) education, with a bias toward awarding vocational qualifications. Or it can be an administrative subdivision of a University (most UK universities do not have colleges - Oxford and Cambridge famously do, and a few others have adopted that system). Which one is being spoken about when the word is used is usually obvious from the context.

The US-centric use of the word "College" as a direct alternative to "University" can cause considerable confusion to older UK English speakers, and indeed can feel annoyingly vague even to people who are aware of the different meaning across the Atlantic.

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    In the US, "name inflation" has become commonplace to inflate the prestige of colleges (4 year and up degrees). East Podunk Normal School became East Podunk College, and now is The University at East Podunk, all without changing that much or expanding their programs. At any rate, this further blurs any line between "college" and "university" in the US (where it wasn't that distinct before). Way back, universities usually were systems comprised of two or more campuses, each a college, but it's common now to call a single institute a university.
    – Phil Perry
    Jun 24, 2014 at 13:42
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    When I did my undergraduate (in Australia), I went to a university which had 'faculties' that were made of 'schools'. College meant a residential college, basically accommodation for students along with various extra-curricular activities. Now to add to the confusion, the university I work for has decided to rename faculties to colleges, and schools to divisions. Why, I do not know. I speculate it is some weird attempt to make it appear more prestigious to new students who are more familiar with 'college' from watching too much US TV. Jun 24, 2014 at 15:05
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    @Phil: Harvard has been a university since 1780; I don't think this rule that universities were systems has ever been true on the east coast. Jun 24, 2014 at 17:32
  • @PeterShor, I did say usually. I can remember when "university" usually meant a state college system, rather than a single institution. Institutions like Harvard or Yale that modeled themselves on places like Oxford or Cambridge might well have used "university" earlier than most.
    – Phil Perry
    Jun 24, 2014 at 17:54
  • In Massachusetts, before around 1970, the University of Massachusetts was the institution in Amherst, MA, while the other institutions that eventually became campuses of UMass were called by separate names (Lowell State, Boston State, etc.). Now, in California and NY, probably what @PhilPerry says has been true for a long time. Jun 24, 2014 at 18:52

The common distinction made is that universities offer graduate programs and colleges do not, but that is not entirely true. Many colleges do have graduate programs, but they are typically applied masters programs with little to no research components. The true distinction of a university is that universities have research programs and PhD programs. In fact, universities tend to put a lot of emphasis on research.

Due to the emphasis on research, it is not uncommon for classes at universities to be taught by TAs and grad students, this is especially true of entry-level classes. The larger the university, the more likely the lower-level classes will be taught by aids and students. At smaller colleges, however, the classes are generally taught by the actual professors.

As with most things, there are exceptions. There are smaller universities with less research emphasis and there are larger colleges that do have research components.

It is also useful to note that a college can be a division of a university. For instance, you could study under the College of Arts and Sciences at Cornell University. And, to further confuse things, sometimes these divisions are called "schools," such as the NYU Tisch School of Arts.

All that said, in the US it isn't pejorative to say that someone went to "college."


  • Does TAs stand for "Teaching Aids" ?
    – Centaurus
    Jun 24, 2014 at 23:05
  • Teacher's Aids or Teacher's Assistants
    – RaneWrites
    Jun 24, 2014 at 23:17
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    At U.S. research universities TA means teaching assistant, who is almost always a master's or doctoral level student. A "UTA" or undergraduate TA is a (usually third or fourth year) student in a (4-year) bachelor's degree program. Jun 25, 2014 at 2:58

I have never heard an American refer to "university." They say "college" just about exclusively. This is regardless of whether the place they got their bachelors degree was actually a university or a college (also, as others have mentioned, sometimes "universities" are made up of smaller "colleges"). Literally the only times I've heard Americans say something like "when I was at University" is when they are talking to a foreigner. It's always "when I was in college" or sometimes, "when I was in school" (if it's clear from the context that they are talking about college).

Likewise, nobody would ever say "university" to mean any kind of post-bachelors degree. They'd say Med School, Business School, Grad School, etc.


In many large American universities the "University" is the high-level organization and the "College" is the specific subordinate organization that focuses around a more specific area of study. It is common to see "University A, college of B". In common speech "Going to college" is what we say, but what we usually mean is "going to university".

The semantics are blurred today, mostly for reasons that have a political history behind them, but you can still see the original meanings in use at most American institutions older than 80 years or so.

Example: http://engineering.tamu.edu/cse/

Various headers read "Texas A&M University, College of Engineering" or just "College of Engineering", because that is a specific college within the Texas A&M structure. Within that college they have further subdivisions by "Department" (electrical engineering, computer science, etc.).

Some universities define a "college" as a specific campus location and focus there on a specific area of study. Some universities even call themselves a "university system" and each campus a "school" and each department a "college". The overall intent is that these terms imply a hierarchy, whether they are commonly used in that sense or not when speaking casually (and its worth noting that American nearly always speak casually, even on formal occasions).


A college is a school that you go to for learning a skill for a job as an adult. For example, "I went to college to become an Engineer."

A University is a collection of colleges that have grouped together. If you look at a University website they will often ask, "What school would you like to apply for?" Here 'School' and 'College' are similar. They may say the 'College of Engineering' for example.

The idea of a University is to create the 'Universal Man'. Someone who is well educated in many areas of life. So when someone goes to University they are learning many things. If someone says 'College' they may mean something more specific, but a college most often is with other colleges making up a University.

Community Colleges are a bit of a stepping stone to a University as they may not have a large enough group of colleges to be officially called a University.

If you are talking with someone you cannot really be wrong by asking, "What college are you at?" That is a good open ended question to make good conversation, because they could answer with different kinds of answers.

  • OK, you went to college to become an engineer. However, can you go to college to become a physician or a lawyer ? If your answer is yes, then I understand what colleges and universities are. But if you say that one would have to go to University for that (Or Medical School/Law School) then I am really missing something. Why could you go to college to become an engineer but not a physician ?
    – Centaurus
    Jun 26, 2014 at 21:29
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    There is a difference between what the schools are actually called, and what people call them when they're talking about them. The school you go to to become a physician could be technically called a college (e.g. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Weill_Cornell_Medical_College) - but nobody would ever something like "when I was in college, getting my M.D.". They would say "when I was in Med School...".
    – Jer
    Jun 27, 2014 at 15:16
  • "College" as a general term ("I'm going to college next year" or "when I was in college") can only really refer to an undergraduate school, regardless of the official name of the medical school/law school/university where you're getting your phd or masters degree.
    – Jer
    Jun 27, 2014 at 15:17

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