Difference between College and University in the USA and the UK

Published on November 29, 2016

Colleges and universities are names for some types of educational institutions in the USA and the UK. While both offer education beyond the level required for all students, the education systems in both countries have evolved differently. Thus, “college” and “university” have different meanings in the USA and the UK. 

Definitions

USA

Colleges and Universities in the USA vs the UK
Boston College, one of the largest private universities in the USA

In the United States, the words “college” and “university” are often used interchangeably. This is because both words refer to education that occurs after the required thirteen years that span from kindergarten to the twelfth grade. In fact, saying that someone “goes to college” could refer to them going to either a college or university.

Both colleges and universities award degrees. Some colleges offer two years of higher education that end with the awarding of an associate’s degree. These are called “junior colleges” and “community colleges”. Many students who desire to earn a bachelor’s degree choose to attend two-year colleges before transferring to four-year colleges, as the former usually have lower attendance costs and admissions requirements.

Other colleges offer four years of higher education and award bachelor’s degrees to their graduates. Universities also award four-year bachelor’s degrees; many educate students at the graduate level as well. There are certain institutions that call themselves colleges, but have all the trappings of a modern university, such as the ability to award graduate degrees. These include such well-known institutions such as Dartmouth College, Boston College and the College of William and Mary. For many Americans, the word “college” refers to institutions that teach either the liberal arts or specialized fields of knowledge.

Finally, many universities in the United States divide themselves into colleges according to history or specialization. For example, Harvard University calls its primary undergraduate school “Harvard College”, recalling the time when the institution awarded only bachelor’s degrees. Many universities, on the other hand, have colleges of arts and sciences, engineering and nursing. In most cases, the universities, not the colleges themselves, award degrees to their graduates.

UK

Colleges and Universities in the UK
Balliol College, one of the constituent colleges of the University of Oxford in the UK

The words “college” and “university” have radically different meanings in the United Kingdom. Many prestigious private primary schools, for example, bear the title “college” in their names. Two examples are Eton College and Winchester College.

A relatively new education concept, referred to as further education college or sixth form college, accommodates students over the age of 16. These institutions offer education leading to either the A-level qualification or the General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE), which is equivalent to the high school diploma in the US. Most universities in the UK require the A-level for admission. However, they may admit holders of the GCSE if they pass Advanced Placement examinations or go on to earn the International Baccalaureate Diploma. 

Unlike colleges, universities have the authority to award degrees. Many older universities, such as Oxford and Cambridge, organize themselves into residential colleges, which provide accommodation and some form of instruction to their students. However, there are independent institutions, called “university colleges”, that are authorized to award degrees despite not having university status.

Colleges and Universities in the USA vs the UK

So, what are the differences between colleges and universities in the USA and those in the UK? The definitions of colleges and universities as well as their differences in the USA and UK are discussed below.

Colleges

A college in the USA is an institution of higher education that has the authority to award associate degrees, bachelor’s degrees, or both. In the UK, sixth form colleges and further education colleges award the GCSE, the A-level, or both. In both countries, the term “college” could also refer to a division within a university that provides instruction for its students, but does not award degrees on its own.

Universities

The USA and UK have similar definitions for the word “university”. In both countries, universities have the power to award degrees, with most offering studies up to the doctorate level. In the United States, there are many full-fledged universities that still choose to call themselves colleges.

Comparison Chart

College University
USA UK USA UK
Awards at least the associate or bachelor’s degree  Confers the GCSE or A-level Awards at least the associate or bachelor’s degree Awards at least the bachelor’s degree 
Constituent colleges do not award degrees Constituent colleges do not award degrees Most universities offer graduate studies Most universities offer graduate studies

Video

Click on the video below to watch a professor from Duke University discuss the historic differences between colleges and universities.