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Choosing Between a College or a University

This is the VOA Special English Education Report.

What is the difference between a college and a university? This is the subject of part three in our series for students who want to attend a college or university in the United States.

Colleges and universities have many things in common. Both provide a greater understanding of the world and its past. Both provide education in the arts and sciences. And both can help prepare young people to earn a living.

Students who complete their undergraduate studies either at a four-year college or a university receive a bachelor’s degree. One difference is that many colleges do not offer graduate studies.

Universities are generally bigger, offer more programs and do more research.

Modern universities developed from those of the Middle Ages in Europe. The word "university" came from the Latin "universitas." This described a group of people organized for a common purpose.

The word "college" came from a Latin word with a similar meaning, "collegium." In England, colleges were formed to provide students with places to live. Usually each group was studying the same thing. So college came to mean an area of study.

But a college can also be a part of a university. The first American universities divided their studies into a number of areas and called each one a college. This is still true.

Programs in higher learning may also be called schools. The University of Arizona in Tucson, for example, has eighteen colleges and ten schools. They include the colleges of pharmacy, education, engineering and law. They also include the schools of architecture, dance and public administration.

College is also used as a general term for higher education. A news report might talk about "college students" even if they include students at universities. Or someone might ask, "Where do you go to college?"

Today, most American colleges offer an area of study called liberal arts. These are subjects first developed and taught in ancient Greece. They include language, philosophy and mathematics. The purpose was to train a person's mind instead of teaching job skills.

And that's the VOA Special English Education Report, written by Nancy Steinbach. Our Foreign Student Series continues next week with a report about online education. You can find our reports at And international students can learn more about higher education in the United States at I’m Steve Ember.

See earlier reports