College vs. university: Similarities and differences

What is the difference between a college and a university? It isn’t always clear. People – especially in the US – use them interchangeably when talking about post-secondary education. In other English-speaking countries, the meaning of ‘college’ can vary. 

This is why it’s sometimes difficult for recruiters to understand someone’s educational level if they do not have a clear understanding of what each one entails. The definitions below will help you determine the major differences between college and university.

What is a college?

In the United States: Colleges are educational institutions that offer undergraduate degrees and vocational qualifications. Some colleges provide bachelor’s degrees after completing four years of study. There are also junior and community colleges with two-year associate’s degrees. Colleges usually specialize in specific areas, such as design or health. A few colleges offer graduate opportunities, too, and have kept the name college mostly out of tradition (e.g. Boston College).

Outside the United States: The college meaning is not the same in all countries. Generally, they are institutions to attend after finishing compulsory education. However, as described above, they can describe other settings, too. For example, in the UK, distinct parts or faculties within a university are often called “colleges”. Colleges are also institutions for those to obtain advanced qualifications as a “bridge” to entering university. In Australia, the word college is also used for senior high schools. In Canada, ‘’community colleges’’ – i.e. city level – are popular and offer technical, vocational, and artistic qualifications.

What is a university?

Universities are higher education institutions that offer undergraduate and graduate degrees. After completing a bachelor’s degree, a student can continue studies in a master’s or a doctorate program. Universities usually offer a wide range of degrees and have distinct faculties and departments (e.g. Medicine, Behavioral Sciences, etc.). They also emphasize scientific research. Unlike colleges, universities usually follow a similar structure across different countries.

Which one is better, university or college?

In university vs. college, which one takes precedence? It depends largely on one’s own  vocational goals. College is more suitable for those interested in more technical and vocational expertise, while university is better for those who are research-oriented and want graduate opportunities. 

If you’re a recruiter looking for candidates with more technical knowledge, both colleges and universities are fine when it comes to background and education. If the position you need to fill in requires more theoretical and research skills someone with a university degree would be a better fit. Be mindful of the distinctions between each – and the country you’re recruiting in – when writing up your list of requirements in job ads and assessing resumes or CVs. This especially applies when you’re building a global team.

Did you find this college vs. university definition helpful? For more HR definitions, see our HR terms section.

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