What’s the Difference Between a College and a University?

There’s no such thing as a dumb question.

Courtesy of Lasell University

A small, private higher-education institution in Massachusetts long known as Lasell College recently underwent a subtle but significant transformation: It changed its name. Now the school goes by Lasell University. Its longtime president, Michael B. Alexander, described the new name as “aspirational.” He thinks it better reflects the breadth of the school’s offerings, and hopes the university designation will make it seem more appealing, particularly to international students.

Many colleges—often obscure ones of middling selectivity—have converted to universities in recent years, seemingly in the hopes of raising their profiles. But whether there’s a material distinction between a college and a university depends on whom you ask—and many people don’t know the difference.

For those who work in higher education, a college and a university are by definition different things. Technically, colleges are institutions that focus on undergraduate education and tend to be small (no more than a few thousand students); universities are larger and grant graduate degrees. According to the College Board, which administers the SAT, “most universities contain several smaller colleges, such as colleges of liberal arts, engineering or health sciences.”

The Chronicle of Higher Education, a news outlet, is a stickler for this semantic nuance when referring to individual schools: “A college is obviously not a university, so if a story is about, say, Oberlin, we wouldn’t call it a university,” Heidi Landecker, the publication’s deputy managing editor and copy-desk supervisor, told me in an email. But when talking about higher education in general, even the Chronicle will fudge the distinction a little. Its house dictionary defines college as “an institution of higher education that grants degrees,” Landecker noted, “so we can and do use ‘college’ to mean ‘university.’”

The traditional definitions also have many exceptions. Plenty of schools with college in their name, for example, have graduate programs—such as Dartmouth and William & Mary. And some universities are relatively small—such as Clark and, well, Lasell. Against this backdrop, it makes sense why some dismiss the distinction as hairsplitting, and why many people view the terms as interchangeable.

I conducted an informal survey of roughly 230 individuals asking whether they believe the terms are distinct and, if so, whether that distinction is important. (Higher-education professionals or high-school counselors accounted for about half my sample, and about one in five respondents was a student.) Fifty-five percent of the respondents said they acknowledge there’s a difference but tend to use the terms interchangeably, while roughly 15 percent either don’t understand the difference or don’t think there is one. A little less than a third of the respondents said there is a distinction and that they don’t use the terms interchangeably. (Higher-education professionals were more likely than other people to emphasize the distinction’s importance.)

But their qualitative responses—along with direct feedback I got from more than a dozen experts—indicate that the extent of the distinction can vary depending on whom you ask. Victoria Tillson Evans, the founder and president of Maryland-based Distinctive College Consulting, for example, sees four main differences: educational level, size, research agenda, and style of education—that is, liberal-arts versus preprofessional education. Stacey Cunitz, the director of college counseling at a Philadelphia private school, said in an email that she focuses on one: “What I tell my students is that in general a university is a collection of colleges.”

In many other countries, the difference between the terms is more obvious. In the United Kingdom, for instance, a university—such as the universities of Oxford and London—is a corporation authorized by the government to grant degrees. Meanwhile, a college is a residential learning community within a universitysuch as University College Oxford and King’s College London. (College comes from the Latin word for “partnership”—col means “together with”—which may explain why in countries where secondary education has traditionally entailed boarding, the term college often refers to secondary schools.)

Colonial Americans disregarded that distinction when establishing the United States’ first postsecondary institutions: They were designated as colleges rather than universities, in part because of limited resources and because they didn’t need the King to authorize them to grant degrees, according to Johann Neem, a professor at Western Washington University who studies the history of American education. The terms blurred further with the creation of research universities during World War II, many of which, like colleges, focused on a liberal-arts education.

The confusion that exists in the U.S. today was, in other words, baked in from the beginning. While educators may fuss over the exact criteria, many counselors and higher-education administrators who reached out to me stressed that few students give much thought to the distinction between a college and a university. Notably, a spokesman for the ACT told me in an email that while the organization understands there’s a difference between a college and a university, that difference “isn’t really something that [the ACT] focuses on.” After all, “ACT scores are used for admissions … by both types of institutions.”

Yet even if they don’t know the technical difference, many people, if only subconsciously, do think of a university as somehow higher caliber than a college. “There’s prestige associated with that more formal-sounding name,” says Teresa Valerio Parrot, a communications professional who works with higher-education institutions. And so the branding matters a great deal to schools. According to Valerio Parrot, most U.S. higher-education institutions have a style guide with rules on how to refer to themselves. (Depending on the school’s image, university might not be a desirable label: Schools that want to promote a liberal-arts identity may prefer the connotations of college.)

A name change like Lasell’s, though “not inexpensive,” according to Alexander, is a marketing investment. It has “promotional value,” he said. The school hired consultants to help with the marketing rollout, including a new logo and tagline; created new university gear and stationery; and is in the process of replacing all the campus’s signs.

This investment, according to Alexander, is already producing results. Many alumni (read: prospective donors) have since requested updated diplomas—and its website “experienced its highest organic-search months ever this past September and October,” according to a spokesperson. The university announced the name change in mid-August.

Yet the changes at Lasell and elsewhere will likely fly under the radar of everyday Americans. After all, many journalists like me who cover education (the Chronicle notwithstanding) tend to treat college and university as synonyms, at least when referring to higher education writ large. And for what it’s worth, The Atlantic’s copy editors approve: “We use them interchangeably, often just for word variation,” Janice Wolly, our copy chief, told me.