What is the Difference Between College and University?

By Sristy Sharma Updated On - May 24, 2022 08:22 AM

College and university are the two most used terms for higher education, but are they the same? No! Colleges and universities are very different from each other. Read on to find the difference between the two in order to choose the better one for you. 

Ever wondered about the difference between college and university? Both colleges and universities are the two most important institutions of higher education be it in India or abroad and most of us often use these two terms interchangeably. But, should we?

Well, there is a huge difference between the two units of higher education and understanding the difference between college and university can have a significant effect on your decision to study abroad.

In this article, we tackle the key differences to settle on college vs university for studying abroad. By knowing how the two are defined, their distinctions, and what types of courses they offer, you can review university websites, applications, and further information on higher education abroad with clarity.

Find the Right College or University for You!

What is a University Abroad?

A university abroad is an institutionalised autonomous body. It is empowered by a legal endowment to grant degrees, certificates, and diplomas. The body acts as both an educational and administrative unit and there are often multidisciplinary courses available for students to study at a university.

Some of the major characteristics of a university abroad include:

  • Degree-granting powers,

  • Higher education courses, including Masters and PhD,

  • Could be involved in research activities,

  • Acts as an educational administrator for other colleges.

What is a College Abroad?

A college abroad is a higher education institution that grants education to students in terms of a degree, especially Bachelors or undergraduate courses. They may or may be independent of a university. However, colleges in foreign countries often tend to associate themselves with some universities to affix more authenticity and integrity to their courses. 

Independent colleges abroad are also known as autonomous colleges. They have degree-granting powers, but only in courses that have been approved by the jurisdictional authority.

Some of the major characteristics of a college abroad are:

  • Offering Short term or vocational courses,

  • Granting undergraduate or Bachelor courses,

  • Administrative function is highly limited due to the limited level of operation,

  • The clubs and societies are not extremely prominent in the case of autonomous colleges.

Difference Between College and University

Given below are certain parameters based on we have tried to analyse the difference between college and university:




Type of Institution

Public or Private

Public or Private

Courses Offered

Diploma, Certificate, Undergraduate or Bachelors

Bachelors, Masters, and PhD

Duration of Courses Shorter (1-3 Years) Longer (3-8 years)
Focus Immigration, Study-Work, Permanent Residency Academics, Research


If not autonomous then affiliated with university

Always autonomous,

Colleges are affiliated as education units

Autonomous Activity


Always autonomous

Sports Activities



Extra-curricular Activities


Larger scaled and competitive

Student Societies

Not much empowered

Highly empowered

Short Term and Vocational Courses

Huge part of education

Offered but as per university’s requirements

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Interrelation Between College and University

While we did answer the question of college vs university, both can be related to each other and are similar to a great extent. In the case of interrelation, a university takes a higher position and the college is considered a subsidiary. For instance, all the schools and colleges that are established in a system of universities are all its subsidiaries or departments. They are a part of the university’s educational and administrative system.

Apart from having colleges established under its system, universities can also be related to colleges not under its system:

  • Affiliated Colleges

  • Autonomous Colleges

Affiliated Colleges

Affiliated colleges are colleges established independently but are affiliated with a university for granting degrees or certifications. This means they have their own educational structure and have independent courses designed, although the final certification on completion, of course, is issued under the university’s name.

This system helps both the college and university. While universities can expand their network and activities, colleges can promise authenticity and integrity to their students for enrolled courses. An affiliation with an established university can help the affiliated college to grow its reach much faster than on a wholly independent level.

Autonomous Colleges

Autonomous colleges are independent colleges that grant degrees under their name. Universities and autonomous colleges are interrelated through special projects, courses, or training programmes.

The interrelationship of autonomous colleges and universities often gives students golden opportunities to earn credits from two different higher education bodies, that is both university and college.

College vs University: Which is Better to Apply for?

There is no sure and single answer to the question 'which is better, college or university?'. Having said that, to help you decide on the college vs university battle, let us take you through a few significant factors:

  • Course: The courses available at a college and university needs to include options desired by the students. Apart from availability, of course, its quality must also be good, both in terms of education and employability.

  • Fees: The fee structure of a college and university abroad can vary significantly. However, it is up to the students to assess which one they can afford. Oftentimes, autonomous colleges, which are private institutions, charge higher fees than universities and especially public universities.

  • Reputation: The reputation of the college or university that is being applied for also matters a lot. If the academic reputation of the institution is not high enough in the higher education sector, the course might not do much justice to you and your potential.

  • Future Opportunities: The opportunities which a student shall be able to access upon graduating from university or college also matter. Students can either study the market situation or simply research the placements and other efforts put in by institution and their effectiveness.

  • Specialisation: Certain colleges abroad are institutions that specialise in certain courses, such as graphic design, virtual arts, architecture, liberal arts, etc. If a specialised college is recognised for its course and employability then it is better to apply to a college for such courses.

Can I Apply to College and University at the Same Time?

Yes, you can apply to college and university at the same time. As has been established in the article, most colleges are affiliated with universities. Even in universities, a student is going to study in a college or school which is operated by a faculty of the university. Hence, a student shall have to study at college only. Even in the case of a college which is not operated by the university’s faculty but is affiliated with the university, the degree shall be issued by the university. 

A college is the education source of all higher education courses.

The only situation when it is not possible to apply for both university and college is when the college is autonomous. In that case, the degree-granting power lies with the college itself. Students wishing to enrol at such a college cannot have university-granted degrees.

Top Universities to Study Abroad

Here is a list of the top study abroad universities of 2022 as per different global ranking charts:

Ranking Charts

Top 10 Study Abroad Universities

Times Higher Education World University Rankings

University of Oxford, UK

California Institute of Technology, US

Harvard University, US

Stanford University, US

University of Cambridge, UK

QS World University Rankings

Massachusetts Institute of Technology, US

University of Oxford, UK

Stanford University, US

University of Cambridge, UK

Harvard University, US

US News and World Report

Harvard University, US

Massachusetts Institute of Technology, US

Stanford University, US

University of California, Berkeley, US

University of Oxford, UK

Top Affiliated Colleges Abroad

Graduation schools or colleges that are affiliated with universities are not ranked like universities. Different streams mean different rankings, as each university is bound to have varying strengths.

Here is a table showing the top colleges for MBA or Business 2022-23, Law, Engineering, Medical Studies, and Fine Arts:

Graduation Stream 

Ranking Authority

Top Colleges


Financial Times

Wharton, University of Pennsylvania, US

Columbia Business School, US

Insead, France & Singapore

Harvard Business School, US

Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University, US



Massachusetts Institute of Technology, US

University of Cambridge, UK

University of Oxford, UK

Nanyang Technological University, Singapore

Stanford University, US


Times Higher Education

Stanford University, US

University of Cambridge, UK

New York University, US

University of Oxford, UK

University of Melbourne, Australia

Fine Arts

US News & Global Rankings

University of California

School of Art Institute of Chicago

Yale University

Virginia Commonwealth University


US News & Global Rankings

Harvard University

Grossman School of Medicine, NY University

College of Physicians & Surgeons, Columbia University

School of Medicine, John Hopkins University

Top Autonomous Colleges Abroad

US News & Global Report has listed the following colleges (private autonomous institutions) as the best colleges of 2023 for specialisation in Liberal Arts:

College Name 

Graduation Rate

Acceptance Rate

Williams College



Amherst College



Swarthmore College



Pomona College



Wellesley College



Bowdoin College



Claremont McKenna College



Clareton College



Middlebury College



Davidson College



Now that the difference between college and university has been established, you would have become familiar with how the terminology is used abroad. However, every country might use different terminology, so you should keep that in mind while researching your options for pursuing higher education abroad.

Get tailored advice on studying abroad based on your profile, requirements and short- and long-term goals. Reach out to our renowned experts at abroad@collegedekho.com.

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