Difference between College and Graduate School

December 20, 2016 by Editorial Team

Colleges and graduate schools contribute significantly to the workforce and the academe. On an annual basis, both types of institutions produce millions of graduates. While many college alumni find employment right away, others choose to seek further education in graduate school. In this article, we will discuss the similarities and differences between the two types of schools.


College vs Graduate School
The Bates College campus

In the United States, college may refer to one of two things: a constituent part of a larger institution, such as a university, or a standalone institution that awards degrees. The phrase “going to college”, in common use, primarily refers to the first four years of education after high school. Thus, most colleges of this type require at least a high school diploma.

As part of a university, a college offers instruction leading to an associate, bachelor’s, master’s, or doctorate degree, with the degree itself being awarded by the university. Each college specializes in a particular field of knowledge, such as arts and sciences, engineering, medicine or law. Many universities operate separate colleges for bachelor’s and graduate students.

As a standalone institution, a college has the power to grant degrees to its graduates. Most institutions that call themselves “colleges” are, in fact, small universities that offer instruction in a wide range of subjects.

graduate school
The Harvard Business School campus

A graduate school offers instruction leading to master’s and doctorate degrees. Graduate schools require at least a bachelor’s degree; certain institutions, such as graduate business schools, also require some sort of working experience. Most graduate schools operate under a university, with a few exceptions operating as standalone institutions.

As part of a university, a graduate school offers specialized instruction leading to a master’s or doctorate degree. The master’s degree consists of around two years of focused coursework and the submission of either a thesis based on original research or a real-life project. On the other hand, the doctorate is considered the pinnacle of educational achievement and consists of two years of coursework and the public defense of a written dissertation based on original research.

College vs Graduate School

What are the differences between college and graduate school? They differ mostly in their organizational structure, types of students they admit, the instruction they offer and the degrees they award.

Organizational Structure

Most colleges operate under the umbrella of a university, with many also operating on their own. The majority of graduate schools also operate as part of a university.

Student Admissions

Colleges admit high school graduates for undergraduate studies, while requiring a bachelor’s degree for graduate studies. On the other hand, graduate schools require a bachelor’s degree for both master’s and doctorate programs.

Courses Offered

At the undergraduate level, colleges offer instruction in a wide range of subjects, requiring the completion of a core curriculum and major courses for graduation. Meanwhile, graduate schools and colleges require the completion of a more focused course of study and years of original research.

Types of Degrees Awarded

At the very least, colleges award the associate and bachelor’s degree after the completion of two and four years of study, respectively. Many colleges grant graduate degrees as well. Graduate schools, in contrast, award master’s and doctorate degrees exclusively.

Comparison Chart

CollegeGraduate School
Requires a high school diploma for undergraduate studies and a bachelor’s degree for graduate studiesRequires a bachelor’s degree for all programs
Offers instruction in a wide range of studiesOffers instruction focusing on a specific area of knowledge

Awards associate and bachelor’s degrees to undergraduates, and master’s and doctorate degrees to graduate students

Awards only master’s and doctorate degrees


Play the video below to watch how students at the University of Michigan view the differences between their experiences in college and graduate school.