After high school, many students will go on to an institution of higher learning to continue their studies and prepare for the future. When you start applying to schools, you may notice that there are options to apply to state colleges, private colleges, public universities, and private universities – while these options may seem similar, it's important to understand the differences between them when deciding where you want to apply. Here is a breakdown of these 4 different options:

What is a College?

The word "college" can mean many different things depending on where you're from. For instance, in many countries around the world, college is equivalent to the high school level in the United States. But in the U.S., college is where you go after high school.

The term "college" typically refers to ​community colleges (two-year schools) and four-year schools.​ ​College is where you go to earn your undergraduate degree​, whether that be an associate's or bachelor's.

A college is a good place to be introduced to the world of higher learning. It's a chance to explore different options and study different things. You can try out various classes before declaring your major and you can get involved in clubs on campus. ​College is a great place to transition to adulthood​ after high school, make some friends and try new experiences.

State colleges vs. private colleges

Public colleges are institutions that are mainly funded by state governments. This is in contrast to private college that rely more on students fees and donations in order to fund their academic programs. Additionally, private colleges can be for-profit, where they are run like a business and can make a profit. In general, nonprofit colleges have better reputations, as they are more concerned with providing a quality education for their students. And one of the biggest differences between these two institutions is price: public schools, being partially funded by the government, usually have lower tuition rates, while private schools charge more.

Additionally, private colleges, and specifically liberal arts colleges, tend to have fewer majors to choose from than public colleges. Public colleges appeal to a larger range of students and generally have larger student bodies while private colleges can afford to be more specialized in their offerings.

What is a University?

According to Southern Utah University, or SUU, ​"A university is an institution of higher learning that offers both undergraduate and graduate programs."​ Universities can be very big, carrying classes of more than 30,000 students. They offer a variety of different academic programs and may have a world-renowned reputation for one specific field of study. A university can be a great choice for students who want to stay at ​the same school through the graduate or professional level.

A university is an institution of higher learning that offers both undergraduate and graduate programs.

Universities generally have large campuses that can hold many students. There may even be a hospital or primary school on the college campus, where students can go do the necessary field work required for their field of study. Universities can have everything from Greek life to sports teams, and the atmosphere on a university campus can feel like one large community within its own bubble. Universities are where many students go after high school who want to have the stereotypical "college" experience, or in this case, a "university" experience.

State universities vs. private universities

What is the difference between state universities and private universities? According to Merriam-Webster, the definition of state college is, ​"A college or university that is financially supported by a state government, often specializes in a branch of technical or professional education, and often forms part of the state university."

A state college is a college or university that is financially supported by a state government, often specializes in a branch of technical or professional education, and often forms part of the state university.

Most state universities actually have the word "state" in their name, such as "Ohio State University" or "Texas State University." Otherwise, many U.S. states tend to have a network of schools. For instance, New York, which has the SUNY (State University of New York) system, with more than 60 campuses within it, according to website. Schools in this system have names such as "SUNY Oswego" or "SUNY Purchase."

"Regular" universities, on the other hand, can be either public ​or​ private, while state universities and colleges are almost always public. Private schools can be great schools, for instance, the Ivy League schools are all private. But with that comes higher costs and sometimes more competitiveness in terms of admissions.

There are many benefits to attending a state college, ​the biggest benefit probably being the cost​. For residents of that same state, ​the cost of attendance is often significantly lower than that of private schools​ in the same state.

College vs. university

Now that you know what a college is and what a university is, you might be wondering how to distinguish the two. After all, it's not uncommon to hear people refer to colleges as universities and universities as colleges. While the two share a lot of similarities, there are some notable differences in the college vs. university definition.

What is the difference between college and university? First​, colleges tend to be smaller than universities.​ There can be different colleges or "schools" within one university system, but you would never find universities within a college.

For instance, Harvard University has Harvard College within it, which is the undergraduate school. Based on this, it's normal to refer to a university also as a college, but it might be strange to refer to a college as a university.

This is also important to consider when choosing to apply to either a college or university because ​colleges tend to have smaller class sizes with more individual attention​ for the student, whereas universities might not. (There are exceptions because there are many small universities.) However, ​universities make up for this by offering more programs and activities​ for students than colleges typically do.

All this being considered, there are some exceptions or areas where the distinction between universities and colleges is unclear. For example, according to Best Value Schools, the College of William & Mary is a college, even though they offer graduate programs in addition to undergraduate programs. This is confusing because colleges do not typically have graduate programs, which is one of the best ways to distinguish between the two. However, as long as the school has the program you're looking for, at the end of the day, it's just a name.

The Bottom Line

There is a difference between colleges and universities. But whether you choose to apply to colleges, universities or both, one is not really better than the other. It just matters what makes the most sense for you, your future, and what kind of experience you're hoping to have.

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