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Terminology: What is the difference between college and a university.


Many of my students are confused by all of the terms applied to describe institutions of higher learning. In reality, the terms are often interchangeable, sometimes represent more politics than reality, and often allow for a great deal of confusion in any case. To save this confusion, I use the term "university" to represent all post-secondary institutions of higher learning, thus treating the term the institution calls itself (for example, a college or institute) as simply part of its proper name, and not a meaningful indication of role. Since this document focuses almost exclusively on American institutes of higher learning, I also avoid the international differences that come with the different political environments under which universities operate.

It was not always the case that the title of the institution was simply a political expression of mission rather than a good definition of the role of the institution. For most of the 19th century, American institutes of higher education were surprisingly uniform in what they called themselves. This does not mean that the many "fly-by-night" institutions which started and quickly folded were in any sense uniform in their names, just that the more stable and well founded institutions.

Education at its most basic occured at schools. Schools generally concentrated in teaching a single well-defined range of skills or understandings, often for a degree that could be used to gain entrance into profession. An example of these schools were the state normal schools, such as the State Normal School of Florence (which would become the University of Northern Alabama) and Washington State Normal School (now Central Washington University).

While schools where purely educational institutions, institutes were often research organizations, although teaching (especially advanced degrees) was often part of their mission. Examples such as Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, which started life as Rensselaer College, quickly changed their names better describe their research efforts. In modern usage, institutes can be degree granting, but often dedicate themselves only to post doctorare work. An example of this is Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

An academy, named after the Akademia, is similar to a school or an institute, being an institution of learning (not always post secondary) dedicated into study and learning in a broader field, but with defined outcomes. In higher education, most academies are related to the training of military officers, such as the United States Military Academy at West Point.

The term college, from the Latin collegium, meant an organization of colleagues, often living together or dedicated to the same task. The term was used by two of England's oldest institutions of higher learning, Oxford and Cambridge, to designate the residential units of their system. In the British practice, colleges were groups of students and faculty who lived and studied in the same residential building. While this term could have continued in the United States (South Carolina College built its original campus around a college system of residential buildings that also housed faculty and students) the practice soon became to use the term to designate independent educational institutions dedicated to undergraduate instruction. By the 19th century, the term had further evolved, until the practice was to call professional schools colleges (such as the Baltimore College of Dental Surgery, which originated the doctorate of dental surgery.) In American usage, the college was a teaching organization like a school, but one that offered a broad range of undergraduate disciplines under the liberal arts umbrella. In modern usage most colleges have added professional oriented programs.

A university, in terms of 19th century American usage, is an institution that awards degrees past the undergraduate degree and to conduct research and service. A university can act as an umbrella organization for several colleges, institutes, and other organizations, and is often tasked by its charter to perform special duties, such as operate an agricultural cooperative (as many land grant universities do in their home states) or to operate significant laboratories, often under contract for the government (such as the University of Tennessee does with Oakridge National Laboratory.) There is a current trend in the United States for colleges to rename themselves Universities for financial reasons rather than reasons oriented to their mission.

The seminary is religious college that, in the practice of the United States, offers a religious rather than academic degree, and often trains its members for church service.

Page Author: Steve Jackson









The Thin Tweed Line, ©2012 by Steve N. Jackson