College vs. University: Key Differences in American and British English Usage

college vs university College and University: two words with similar meanings that are often used interchangeably. However, a college and a university can often mean very different things depending on the context and the country. This article will clarify some of the questions about the differences between a college and a university, both in terms of their dictionary meaning and their use in colloquial speech.

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College vs. University in American English

The differences between college and university in American English are very nuanced, particularly when used in everyday speech. The dictionary meanings of these two terms are quite clear, yet, the two words are often used interchangeably colloquially. To understand the differences between college and university in American English, therefore, we must examine the words at the level of everyday speech and at their technical meaning.

College vs. University in Everyday Speech

Consider these three headlines from the New York Times:

Here, we have three separate headlines using three different terms – university, college, and school – for higher education. This is because in colloquial, everyday speech, the terms university and college are often conflated. In some contexts, school may also be used for college, as in “Harvard Law School”, “London School of Economics”, or a question like, “what major did you have in school?”

More often than not, college is used as a generic term for the pursuit of higher education. This includes both actual universities (like Harvard University) and smaller institutions such as community colleges or professional schools like a college of nursing. It is also the term used for college sports.

Colloquially, university is used less frequently. The term is typically used when referring to academic activity at the graduate level, or to refer to universities as a whole (“Stanford University”, not “Stanford College”, even though students of the university may be called ‘college students’).

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College vs. University: The Actual Meaning

While college and university have come to mean the same thing colloquially, they actually refer to two very different institutions:

  • College is typically a smaller, goal-oriented institution that offers only undergraduate programs. For example, Williams College, Amherst College, etc.
  • University refers to a larger institution that offers a wide range of academic programs at the undergraduate and graduate level, has a significant student body and plenty of sports teams. For example, Harvard University, University of California, etc.

In some cases, all undergraduate activity of a university is grouped under the term college. For example, undergrad students at Harvard attend Harvard College, while the graduate and PhD students go to Harvard University.

The problem is further compounded by certain universities’ historical preference for the term ‘college’. For example, Dartmouth College, despite being a full-fledged university, prefers to call itself ‘college’.

I know this is getting quite complex, so here are some rules of the thumb for American English:

  • In everyday speech, any institution of higher learning may be called a college.
  • All student athletes post high school are said to be collegeathletes.
  • University is typically used when referring to large institutions that offer both undergraduate and graduate programs.
  • College is both a generic term for institutions of higher learning, and is used to refer specifically to smaller institutions that offer only undergraduate degrees.
  • Some universities prefer to be called colleges, while others call their undergraduate programs ‘colleges’.
  • ‘College student’ is a broad term referring to any student enrolled in an institution of higher learning.

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College vs. University in British English

British English follows slightly different rules for college and university. This owes largely to the way the education system is organized in UK. Most universities are degree-granting institutions with a number of affiliated colleges. Students attend these affiliated colleges but get their degrees from the main university.

For example, Oxford University has 44 colleges attached to it. Students who go to any of these colleges will get their degrees from Oxford University and will have access to the university’s facilities, but their actual classes will take place at one of the 44 affiliated colleges.

Because of this, students are more likely to use the term university rather than college. A student going to Lincoln College, Oxford University is more likely to say that he goes to Oxford University rather than Lincoln College.

Of course, this is not a hard and fast rule. You might see college used in place of university quite frequently as the lines between American and British English blur. However, for the most part, university is the more frequently used generic term.

To sum it up:

  • University is the more frequently used generic term for higher education in formal speech.
  • College, when used in formal speech, typically refers to an institution affiliated to a larger university. It may also refer to goal-oriented institutions such as a college of nursing, accounting, etc.
  • In informal speech, college and university are often used interchangeably, though you are more likely to be asked, “Which university do you go to?” than “What college do you go to?”

The differences between college and university are a difficult to point out due to the way education systems are organized around the world. The terms are often used interchangeably informally, though in formal speech, college has come to stand for a smaller institution, while university refers to a larger institution with a significant student body and a wide variety of academic programs at both the undergraduate and graduate levels.

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