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What's the Difference Between a College and University?

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You may not realize it, but there actually is a difference between a college and university. Although the terms often are used interchangeably, and exceptions do exist, each has its own characteristics. In many parts of the world, the distinction between the two is more obvious. European colleges, for example, are similar to the vocational component of American community colleges, while universities confer all academic degrees.

College vs. University

With origins dating back to the Middle Ages, universities have historically been regarded as repositories of advanced learning, teaching and, most importantly, research. Often hosts to great libraries, collections and teaching hospitals, universities also tend to offer post-graduate degrees such as master's and/or doctoral degrees, although they serve bachelor's and master's students as well.

With a heavier focus on research, academics and critical thinking, major universities are larger than colleges and often comprised of various colleges or schools, such as a College of Business, College of Medicine or College of Education. Professors are often required to participate in research, and large universities may have dozens of major research projects being conducted at any given time. University classes, whether at traditional campuses or online, can be as large as many as hundreds of students attending lectures as well as smaller class sizes. These schools can be public, as in the case of state schools such as The Ohio State University, and can also be private, like Villanova University or American InterContinental University.

Colleges: What Makes Them Different?

A college in the modern sense is often confused with a university, and in many cases, they serve the same purposes. Some schools that have "college" in their name, such as the College of William and Mary, are actually full-fledged universities. Still, there are some general distinctions.

Where many universities are public, most colleges are private, and only associate's and bachelor's degrees are conferred. There are some colleges that focus on a single subject or field, such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. A host of small liberal arts colleges have small student populations, and depending on the school, the student-to-faculty ratio at colleges can be lower than at a university.

Operated both privately and publicly, community colleges award certificates, diplomas and two-year associate's degrees. Students are prepared for vocational pathways, and classes are weighed heavily toward practical training. However, certain community colleges serve as a springboard toward a four-year degree.

In the end, the rules governing the differences between a college and university aren't always ironclad. In many cases, they differ in name only.

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