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Colleges Versus Universities: The Pros and Cons of Each & What It’s Like to Go There

You’ve no doubt considered a ton of different factors when thinking about where to visit and apply for colleges. One thing a lot of us miss, however, is to think about the difference between a college and a university. This difference can affect the size of the student body, opportunities both in and out of the classroom, the types of available undergrad and graduate opportunities, and how college and university systems spend time and money on research. Colleges, for example, are often smaller in terms of both physical size and the number of degrees you can earn on campus, as they only offer undergrad programs, while universities can have both undergrad and graduate programs. Universities also tend to be more research-based or emphasize different research practices more than a typical college would. Here are in the ins and outs of colleges versus universities to help you decide where to spend the next four years.

Size matters

At a college:  Colleges are usually smaller institutions than universities are. Oftentimes, you’ll find a smaller student body, smaller class sizes, and fewer academic, extra-curricular and entertainment options outside of class. This can be both good and bad. Obviously, smaller classes mean there’s a greater chance you’ll stand out to your professor for stellar academic performance (a given for all of our readers, obviously!) and get to know your classmates way better than you would just sitting in a lecture hall of 300 people. You could also face limited class offerings or more restrictive academic schedules however, with classes only offered in one semester instead of two, or every other year instead of being offered every year like you might find in a bigger school. It doesn’t hurt to double check and make sure schools you’re interested in have everything you’re looking for when it comes to majors and a variety of class offerings, especially if you’re interested in attending somewhere smaller.

Even with fewer offerings, you’ll still be surrounded by lots of interesting people. “My favorite thing about [my school] is that it’s made up of dedicated people with interests in many different areas of study and life,” says Bettina Weiss, a junior at Connecticut College. Roxanna Coldiron, a recent grad from Hiram College agrees. “I just graduated from a college and I like the smallness of it. Smaller classes mean it’s easier to have real discussions,” she says. 

At a university: Don’t let movies and TV shows scare you! While universities are often larger, it’s definitely not something that should automatically deter you from attending one. Larger schools usually mean you’ve got TONS of options, from what you want to major or minor in to some crazy cool classes you can take to complete those pesky generals. Obviously though, larger size also means you might have to put up with a few full lecture hall classes or professors that don’t make the effort to get to know you. It just means you need to go that extra step to get to know people, both in class and out! Luckily, larger schools also tend to have more clubs, (and bigger Greek life programs!) activities, games, performances, and more for students to enjoy! Those football tailgating parties you always see in movies and shows? Definitely a staple of bigger universities. “My favorite thing [about my school] is the athletics,” shares Kirsten Ballard, a senior at UNC Chapel Hill. Another bonus? Larger universities also have a bigger bankroll to sponsor big name performers and fun activities year-round – score!

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What degree are you going for?

At a college: Most colleges are places where you’ll only be able to get a Bachelor’s degree. Classes are usually organized into different departments that represent different fields you can major in. Since colleges are usually smaller, they often don’t have hospitals or law schools on or close to campus like you’d find at a university. This also means you won’t be able to take advantage of accelerated degree programs. Some universities let you get a combination bachelors/masters degree, for example, if a student attends the same institution in related fields for both undergrad and graduate school.  

At a university: A larger university tends to mean you’ll have options galore when it comes to picking a field and exploring different academic passions. A university typically organizes their classes and majors into different schools or colleges within the university system that allows students to work with and learn from others with similar academic interests and make the university seem a bit smaller.

This division can also mean more run-around when it comes to getting some basic questions answered, though. “My least favorite part about NYU is the bureaucracy,” says Hannah Orenstein, a junior at New York University. “When I had a question for the residential life office about my housing, it took six unanswered phone calls and an unanswered email before I could finally talk to someone… and it wasn’t even the person I needed to speak with. It’s easy to feel like a number or like the administration doesn’t care about your needs in those situations.” Long story short, you might have more resources available to you, but they might be harder to access.

Some universities also offer automatic (or practically guaranteed) admission to post-grad programs in health, legal, or other professional fields for students who earn a bachelor’s degree at their institution. You also sometimes have the chance to start interning or shadowing current grad or professional students as an undergrad, since they’re already right on campus. If you’ve been dreaming about becoming a doctor or lawyer and know you’re going to continue on after four years of undergrad, a larger university might have some additional perks to explore.

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The research factor

At a college: While you may have the chance to work with a professor at closer, more intimate levels at a smaller college, research typically isn’t a primary goal of a lot of schools. Research opportunities exist both on and off campus at many schools, but they can be harder to find at colleges. Professors’ jobs aren’t tied to the completion of research and when they do decide to complete a project, they often take a year or semester to go on sabbatical, meaning their research isn’t even necessarily conducted on campus. Finding ways to get your name on a high-profile project or experiment might take more effort and more energy on your part to seek out these opportunities (or create them!) on your own.

At a university: Universities are the opposite story. Many professors accept their jobs based on the condition they’ll complete research and include undergrad and graduate students at land grant or research-based universities. Often times, different research opportunities and projects are how schools receive different sources of state funding that can be huge for universities. Schools with a research focus also tend to have more resources like grants or other funding methods to support professor and student-driven research projects. That being said, a lot of research is also conducted by or heavily relies on grad students, meaning undergrads may have limited entry points to make their own mark or work with a professor.

Keep in mind these are just general trends when it comes to the differences between colleges ad universities. Some schools are tricky in that they use one title or the other, but may not fit one of these differences. Regardless of where you end up, the four years you’ll spend as an undergrad essentially are what you make of it. Wherever you decide to go, look into and take every opportunity that comes your way. Those four years will whiz by!

Photo Credits:
College Building
Graduation
Female Chemist

Sydney is a junior double majoring in Media and Cultural Studies and Political Science at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn., a short trip away from Minneapolis, her hometown. When Sydney is not producing content for a variety of platforms, she enjoys hanging out with friends, watching movies, reading, and indulging in a smoothie or tea from Caribou Coffee, the MN-based version of Starbucks.
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