Difference between Harvard College and Harvard University

Published on December 1, 2016

Harvard College and Harvard University are two institutions that have played a large role in the history of the world. Since their beginnings as a colonial college, American presidents, Supreme Court justices, senators and representatives have nurtured their knowledge inside the institution’s hallowed halls, as have many other countries’ heads of state. One can argue that “Harvard College” and “Harvard University” refer to the same institution. However, while the College and University’s respective histories are intertwined, many things set them apart. This article will discuss those differences.

Definitions

Harvard College vs Harvard University
Lowell House, one of Harvard College’s residential houses

Harvard College refers to the primary undergraduate college of Harvard University. Because it was founded in 1636, Harvard College is the oldest existing institution of higher learning in the United States. The name of Harvard University’s governing body, The President and Fellows of Harvard College reflects the original name of the institution. While it is widely believed that Harvard was named after one of its founders, it actually took its name from the clergyman John Harvard who willed a large portion of his estate to the young institution in 1638.

Harvard College originally offered instruction leading to the bachelor’s degree in divinity, law, and humanities; because of this, many felt that other fields of knowledge were being neglected. This situation was rectified, however, when studies in applied science and engineering began in the early 20th century. Around that time the university also started distributing upperclassmen among twelve residential houses. Thanks to this arrangement, strong bonds formed among students and alumni.

Harvard University
The Littauer Building of the John F. Kennedy School of Government, one of Harvard University’s professional schools

The history of Harvard University begins with that of Harvard College. It is not clear when people started using the word “university” instead of “college” to refer to Harvard. However, it is possible that the shift in name was in keeping with English institutional naming conventions such as those used by Cambridge and Oxford. In 1780, the Constitution of Massachusetts recognized Harvard as a university; despite this, Harvard didn’t became a full-fledged university until the opening of the medical school in 1782. As a result of further expansion through the centuries, Harvard University now offers instruction through two undergraduate schools and ten graduate and professional schools. 

Harvard College vs Harvard University

So what is the difference between Harvard College and Harvard University? The main difference lies in the kind of students they admit. Harvard College only admits and educates undergraduates. Harvard University admits both undergraduates (through Harvard College) and graduate or professional students. Therefore, Harvard College offers instruction leading to a bachelor’s degree, while Harvard University awards bachelor’s, master’s, professional, and doctorate degrees. Consequently, one can say that not all Harvard University alumni are graduates of Harvard College. However, all Harvard College alumni are graduates of Harvard University.

As a result of its beginnings as a primarily undergraduate school, most of Harvard College’s buildings, including residential houses, dormitories, and lecture halls, stand near Harvard Yard in the main campus in Cambridge, Massachusetts. In contrast, the campuses of many of Harvard University’s professional schools, such as the Business School, School of Medicine, School of Dental Medicine, and School of Public Health, are located in other parts of the greater Boston area. 

Harvard College alumni include former U.S. Presidents John Adams, John Quincy Adams, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and John F. Kennedy. Harvard University (that is, non-undergraduate) alumni include former U.S. Presidents Rutherford B. Hayes, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama as well as U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon. 

Comparison Chart

Harvard College Harvard University
Founded in 1636 as Harvard College Founded in 1636 as Harvard College; recognized as a university by the Massachusetts Constitution in 1780
Awards undergraduate (bachelor’s) degrees Awards bachelor’s, master’s, professional, and doctorate degrees
Buildings are in the main campus in Cambridge Many professional schools have campuses in the Greater Boston area
Alumni include John Adams, John Quincy Adams, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and John F. Kennedy Alumni include Rutherford B. Hayes, George W. Bush and Barack Obama as well as U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon