An undergraduate bachelor’s degree is typically earned at either a college or university.
You’ll likely refer to your student entering either a college or a university program as a “college student” and share the news with family and friends as, “my daughter is going to college.” This is a normal way to refer to this stage of life. Colleges and universities are often talked about interchangeably, and while they are very similar educational institutions, there are a few key differences.
A college is a postsecondary institution that usually provides only undergraduate education, as opposed to offering graduate programs as well. This is not always the case, however this is the typical distinction from a university. Colleges also tend to be smaller than universities and have smaller class sizes. Depending on your student, smaller class sizes may be a good reason to choose a college over a university, as they can provide more personal learning opportunities. Each individual college will vary depending on type and region, so additional research is necessary to find the best fit for your teen.
Universities are postsecondary institutions that provide undergraduate and graduate programs. They will often have medical or law schools as well. Universities tend to be bigger than colleges, with more diverse curriculum because of the larger student body. Usually, universities divide up their different programs into schools like the “College of Engineering” or the “College of Education,” through which specific programs can be completed. Universities will often dedicate quite a bit of time and resources to research. Professors at universities typically are conducting this research while also teaching classes. It is common to have a TA (teaching assistant), who is also a graduate student, teaching smaller, discussion-based classes, while the professor teaches several large lectures during the week.
Most states have what are known as “flagship” universities. This refers to the main public college in the state, which is likely quite large (i.e. University of Wisconsin-Madison, Ohio State University, University of Texas, etc.). These universities typically draw students from both in-state and out-of-state, and often internationally as well. States will also have smaller public schools, usually drawing the majority of the student body from the region. In-state versus out-of-state universities (and colleges) can be a big financial determinant for where your teen goes to school, as state schools tend to be less expensive for students who are currently residents of that state.
Not all universities will operate in the same way. Additional research about each individual university is necessary to choose the best fit for your student. Students who enjoy environments where there are lots of degree options and people will likely find value in a university education.
Public vs. Private Schools
What mainly determines a public or private school (college or university) is how they are funded. Public colleges or universities are largely supported by state and some federal funding, in addition to student tuition. Private colleges or universities are supported by student tuition, endowment (which is the total value of the institution’s investments), and donations from alumni and other private donors. Public colleges or universities will often receive donations as well, but private colleges depend on these donations to operate. Because of this funding structure, private colleges tend to be more expensive than public colleges and universities, although this is not always the case. Because of the private contributions and endowments of private college, there often can be very good financial aid packages offered to students.
For more information on public vs. private schools, please see Public vs. Private 101.
Four-year institutions can differ greatly from school-to-school. And although students pursuing undergraduate degrees from these schools typically complete them in four years, it is important to note that not all students will spend just four years at the institution. Taking the time to compare and contrast different schools based on location, tuition, professors, class-size, educational opportunities, major offerings, and more is essential to deciding which four-year school your student should attend.