Are You Thinking of Studying at a University?

What is the Difference Between a College and a University?

I don’t know about you, but when I think about universities I picture a classic Harvard or Yale in my mind; ivy covered, hallowed halls and all that. Universities are the classic educational foundations of modern thought. The greatest ideas and minds have hailed from notable universities that have historically placed great value and emphasis on their academics over all others.

What distinguishes a Yale and Harvard? What elements combine to make a university characteristically distinct from a college?

Official Classifications

The Carnegie Classification is a system applied to higher education that has made it useful for academicians to slice up collegiate institutions into closely related types. Universities have traditionally been classified in terms of student body size, degree levels conferred and the expanse of academic research and development. Now recent changes make the classification a more elastic tool that in some terms contradicts the old school classification. The biggest alteration is the classification based on terms of “community engagement.” Depending on how involved an institution is with its community indicates a level of classification. Private four-year colleges may now co-exist on the same list as a large public university or a community college, based on this malleable metric.

University Features

Setting classifications aside, what you really want and need to know are the distinguishing characteristics that matter to your personal education, tangible factors like environment, athletics, social life, types of academics, and Greek life. Universities provide a large and diverse student body. International students often seek out the diversity of large universities and in kind international students comprise a significant percentage of the student body. Campus properties are often large and sprawling in the suburbs and rural areas, while those located in cities seemingly integrate with the urban environment around them.

The environment may be important to you. A rural university may provide a measure of solitude, but consider it in the long term, outside the scope of the weekend you might take to visit. Likewise if you are not accustomed to an urban lifestyle, an inner city university can be a foreign and lonely place.

Students that thrive in over stimulation, in large groups and can function with a lot of activity around will fare well in a university. Most institutions provide large athletic programs and an extensive and varied events calendar. Likewise many large campuses also feature a Greek life.

Academics and Degrees

The university system has generated masterminds. Since much of the good stuff in research and development is spawned from the minds of academics, universities vie for the talent and facilities in which to nurture that spirit. If you’d like to study amidst world-class scientists and literati, a large and reputable university will likely offer that ambience.

While four-year colleges must adhere to a four-year degree, a university typically offers a Bachelors and Masters, and many more also cater to the Ph.D. crowd. Academic degrees are abundant. If you think your college career could take you beyond a four-year degree, you might consider carefully a university that would be suitable for a lengthier term of stay.

Private and Public

State funded university systems are public institutions provided for the good of all people. They serve as a reminder that everyone has a right to an affordable college education. Unfortunately there is relatively little that is “affordable” in the realm of college, but a public university delivers low tuition to in-state residents, a fraction of that commanded at private universities. For many American students that seek a reputable college education a state university is their first choice. Arguably, there are state universities that boast fantastic academics and championship athletes, all at the same time.

Private universities the likes of Yale and Harvard function off the foundation of a few hundred years’ of endowments. Celebrated alumni serve as advertisement for the institutions. Wealthy alumni associations continue to feed the coffers that could now keep the lights on for a hundred years or so to come, even if not another nickel were given. Yale University’s endowment is currently $18 billion.

University Drawbacks

Ironically the cost at a private university rivals that of a four-year private college. It’s a small fortune. Cost alone keeps many middle and lower income students away, especially those with middle of the road academic records. While many universities have increased grants and scholarships they don’t have the same flexibility as smaller colleges; they just don’t have the time to provide personal attention.

Students that choose a university campus must be willing and able to adjust rapidly; adapt to distractions, dedicate serious study time to their courses in the midst of so much excitement and things to do. Those with a self-discipline problem can fall easily behind on a large campus. Giant lecture-style classes offer very little respite for a challenged student.

Start your college search early and choose carefully. Avoid the opinions of parents and friends. Opt first to examine your own needs and goals.