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"College" or "University" -- What's in a Name?

In America, we all talk about going to “college”. But a majority of young people go to public institutions, often called “universities.” What’s the difference, and how should it affect where a student applies?

The truth is, all “undergraduates” go to college. Sometimes the college stands by itself and sometimes it is part of a larger campus that includes graduate schools of business, medicine, law, etc. The larger institution is the university, but the freshman student still attends college --the college of arts and sciences, the college of business, the college of nursing, for example.

Because they encompass several different colleges and graduate schools, Universities tend to be large (usually 10,000 students up to 25,000-35,000 or more) and well-known. Examples include Harvard, Vanderbilt, Georgetown and UCLA. These campuses have many more things going on than just undergraduate education. Their faculty members may be world-renown for their scientific discoveries, their law professors may present arguments to the Supreme Court, and they may train many of the educators in their state’s public school system. There are many benefits for undergraduates in this environment. It can be exhilarating to be taught by a professor at the cutting edge of his field, to be exposed to new knowledge as it’s being created. There tends to be a wide range of student-run clubs and activities, with a large number of potential friends no matter what your interest. And while it can be harder to be involved in research at a university that enrolls many graduate students, it is not impossible for someone highly motivated.

Colleges that stand by themselves are often referred to as “liberal arts colleges” or “colleges of liberal arts and sciences.” Some examples: Williams, Rhodes, Pomona, and Earlham. They tend to be smaller (less than 3000 students) and primarily residential. With no graduate students on campus, undergrads claim all of the faculty’s attention. Research can still be important, but usually the focus is on training students to take part in this academic enterprise. The environment encourages all students to form close relationships with their professors and the other students.

Keep these definitions in mind as you research which type of institution might be right for you. Whether at a college or university, the “best” education is found in an environment that’s right for each student. If you need help, please contact me at 847-660-8625 or fill out the “contact me” form at the bottom of the page.

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