The difference between a "college" and "university" can depend very much on where someone lives. In many cases in the US, colleges refer to schools that offer four-year advanced education only, and an institution which does not typically offer more than a bachelor’s degree. A university, however, is a school that offers postgraduate programs such as those resulting in a master's or doctoral degree. Colleges can also refer to the individual schools and departments within a larger institution. In other countries, "colleges" can refer to various levels of education, including secondary schools.
Terminology for Different School Levels
The terms "college" and "university" may be synonymous, or may be used as a way of granting greater stature to an institute of higher learning. In some areas there are multiple, public, degree-granting systems. This can include numerous community or junior colleges as well as technical or art schools that are often at the same level. Universities, then, are those schools that offer higher degrees beyond a two or four-year program.
Colleges in Traditional Settings
Traditionally, the term "college" applied to a part of a university. Large universities may be split into colleges or schools that offer different degrees. Deans or heads of these departments oversee them, but the university itself holds the ability to grant degrees. Most large universities also offer advanced programs resulting in doctoral and masters degrees.
Historical Context for Colleges
"College" was first used in the US because institutions established for higher education were initially quite small. They didn’t approach the grandeur of European, and particularly English, universities like Oxford. Men, at first only men, could attend some of the early schools like Harvard College, but could not get advanced doctorate degrees unless they studied abroad.
As colleges like Harvard grew, some changed their names to “university” to reflect that they offered advanced degrees and numerous smaller schools. Some other colleges, representing the oldest in the US, clung to the old name, even as they expanded and offered advanced degrees. This has created confusion within the US, however, as the two terms have become synonymous in some situations.
Alternative Uses in Various Countries
In some countries, a college might not even be an institute of higher learning. Regions like Hong Kong, New Zealand, South Africa, and Ireland often use "colleges" to refer to secondary schools. "College" in Canada tends to mean Junior or certificate schools that offer training in trades, rather than a liberal arts program. In France, they are often junior high or middle schools; while in the UK, the term "college" usually refers to a section of a larger university.