To me (an American), "what to study in college" sounds acceptable. Meanwhile, "what to study in university" sounds wrong. This suggests that these words have different grammatical attributes.

This is shown somewhat in the example sentences on m-w.com:


I applied to several public universities.
He lives near the university.


She teaches art at a local college.
He graduated from one of the country's best colleges.
She attended a business college.
He attended college for several years, but didn't graduate.
She dropped out of college.
I went to Mount Holyoke College.
When I was a junior in college, I spent a semester in Spain.
the Edinburgh College of Art
the London College of Fashion
She is attending fashion college.

Replacing the non-proper noun 'college' examples with 'university' doesn't sound right in many cases.

He attended university for several years, but didn't graduate.
She dropped out of university.
When I was a junior in university, I spent a semester in Spain.

Placing an article in front of 'university' does make it sound better.

He attended a university for several years, but didn't graduate.
She dropped out of the university.

Meaning aside, what is the difference between 'college' and 'university' that suggest a different sentence structure to make it sound "better".

While, Difference between "college" and "university" looks at the difference between the meanings, the question doesn't ask nor do the answers address the perceived grammatical difference.

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    Meanings vary from country to country. Even in the same country, the terms can have various meanings. There is no grammatical difference. They are both nouns.
    – Mick
    Commented Nov 5, 2016 at 23:06
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    The 'grammatical difference' between two nouns is a misuse of the term 'grammatical'. Grammar refers to structures; you would need to write a different title for it to be acceptable. Commented Nov 5, 2016 at 23:23
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    In my experience in the U.S., universities confer advanced degrees (e.g., Masters, Ph.Ds), colleges do not. And some colleges are two-year schools (community colleges), others four-year schools. Commented Nov 5, 2016 at 23:26
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    The most significant difference in the US, in terms of construction, is that you may "go to college" but you never "go to university". (This is apparently not true in the UK, however.)
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Nov 6, 2016 at 1:49
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    This is not about the meaning of 'college' vs 'university', but rather the question of "why does 'what to take at university' sounds wrong to the American ear?"
    – user204517
    Commented Nov 6, 2016 at 21:30

1 Answer 1


As Macmillan explains, college can be used as a noncount noun, whereas university is generally a count noun. So, when you use "university" in the singular, you typically need a determiner, like "a" or "the."

  • Like the British (but not American) use of in hospital as an anarthrous ("no article") noun like at home, in church, at school, at work, and at college, you can say He's away at university in the UK, but not in the US (unless you say it in RP). In the US, a university is a grown-up college, which every one aspires to become. In my home town, the local college changed from Northern Illinois State Teachers College to Northern Illinois College to Northern Illinois University during my lifetime; I don't recall whether state and teachers were deleted together or separately. Commented May 9, 2023 at 17:07

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