"College" and "university" in American English usage

I have a rough understanding about the concept of undergraduate and graduate studies in the English-speaking world (a distinction which is currently being introduced to the European continent), and I also know that a “college” in British (especially Oxbridge) usage is something totally different from a “college” in the U.S. What I’m interested in is the usage of terms.

AFAIK, a “college” in the U.S. is typically understood as a school which grants undergraduate, but not graduate (master’s) or professional (such as legal or medical) degrees. It can be both an institution on its own or the undergraduate division of a larger school.

What is a “university”? Is it a school (or division of a larger institution) granting graduate degrees, or is it a broader term which also encompasses colleges? What about professional, i.e. law and medical schools - would an Americal refer to them as “universities”, or simply as “law school” and “medical school” respectively?

When an American talks about his or her younger days, beginning with “Back then, when I was in college…”, is he/she referring strictly to the years of undergraduate study, or can this usage also encompass further years of study?

As a related question: Are the terms “graduate study” and “postgraduate study” synonymous? I tend to say yes, thinking that both refer to studies which require a previous undergraduate degree for admission, but I’m not sure.

From what I’ve seen at Texas A&M University, a University is a learning institution that is large enough to contain several smaller colleges in it. Each college in this case would cover a narrower range of topics, ie the College of Science or the College of Liberal Arts.

A smaller stand-alone institution that covers a full range of topics would be called a College. I’m not sure if these Colleges typically grant Graduate or Post-Graduate/Doctorate degrees.

A “Medical School” or “Law School” I think is typically a college that is part of a larger University. Not everyone who goes to Harvard University is there for law school, but you run into many lawyers who came from the Harvard Law School. Ditto for, say, Baylor University and their medical school.

Post-Graduate and Graduate are not the same thing. Basically, a Graduate degree is the degree that you have to be a college graduate (ie: You have a Bachelor’s Degree) in order to persue. Often also known as Master’s Degrees. A Post-Graduate degree requires someone who has past the Graduate level of learning, and I think is generally equivalent to a Doctorate of some sort (PhD, MD, etc.)

That said, my experience in the academic arena is largely limited to Texas A&M University, a couple of community colleges, and my current school (a dedicated language school which grants Associate’s Degrees, which are considered to be a level below a Bachelor’s undergraduate degree), so I don’t really know how things are done elsewhere.


Not exactly. You are correct insofar as “I went to college” means I did undergraduate studies. However, an institution called <Something> College may indeed have graduate programs. It’s often just a matter of the history of the institution.

But regardless of the actual name or size or degree programs of an institution, you would always say, “I went to college at <Name>,” when referring to undergraduate studies. (Example: “Have you visited Harvard University? My friend went to college there.”) You’d never say, “I went to university.” For advanced degrees, you’d usually say “graduate school” or simply “grad school”. (“My friend went to grad school there in the 80s.”)

It’s just a name that some institutions of learning have chosen. There are sometimes administrative subdivisions of a university, but these usually have no relevant observable consequences. (Contrast Oxbridge.) The entirety of a school is the university. So, Harvard University (to continue that example) has students pursuing undergraduate and graduate (Master and Ph.D.) degrees. It’s all the university. For something like California Institute of Technology, you might say, “I work at the institute,” but you’d sound a bit posh. You’d probably instead just say, “I work at the university.”

“Law school” and “medical school” would plug in where “grad school” appears above. Most universities with a law or medical school like to keep the naming separate, so you might get, “Back when I was at Harvard Law…”

Only undergraduate study. Otherwise they’d say, “Back then, when I was in grad school…”


In the US, the rules for whether an institution is called a college or a university are really soft and loose. Generally, a college is an institution focusing on undergraduate (bachelor’s degree) education, while a university includes a substantial component of graduate (master’s and doctoral degree) programs, but exceptions abound. Further, there are plenty of schools which use neither college nor university in their name, but clearly qualify as such (e.g. Massachusetts Institute of Technology, U.S. Military Academy).

College in the UK refers to the 16-19 phase of education, usually people taking A-levels or equivalents. Everyone refers to undergrad/post grad learning environments as university.

It’s nothing like that simple. That’s just one form of college. There’s the colleges of Oxbridge and of the University of London. There’s degree-awarding specialist colleges such as various music conservatoires. There’s colleges of further education which primarily or solely provide post-18 courses. The word is also increasingly used in (pointless) school names, such as ‘…Business and Enterprise College’ or ‘…Sports Specialist College’, although everyone still refers to them as schools in all other contexts.

All true - but I’ve never met someone who referred to college when they were talking about university, nor use the world when they were referring to school. City Technology Colleges are even officially called colleges but they’re considered schools and I’m pretty certain that’s what someone going there would describe it as, name notwithstanding.

Thanks for these replies, guys, in the fight against my ignorance.

That’s interesting, because I think that in most of the world, the word used instead of “college” in this meaning would be faculty. In the U.S., OTOH, this seems to mean the entirety of all the active professors.

True, it depends whether we’re talking about its usage in titles or the lower case ‘college’ in general. I do like to insist on correctness about that fact that most undergrad/postgrad institutions are referred to as ‘university’, but not all (I’ve had people tell me in the past that it’s impossible for places without that word in their title to award degrees in their own right :rolleyes: )

It’s fine point, but it actually refers to the institution, or the administrative division, rather than the people who operate that institution. You would say “the faculty” if you were talking about the instruction staff. As in “The faculty of the College of Arts & Sciences are upset about the new curriculum” … “the faculty at Dartmouth College are generally liberal” etc.

You wouldn’t say, for instance, “The College of Arts & Sciences is angry about the curriculum” but you might say “The College of Arts & Sciences is building a new building for the Math department.” The latter doesn’t mean the professors are building it themselves!

“The College” is a singlular, non-collective noun, in other words. :slight_smile:
-Graduate of The College of William & Mary, one of the exception schools because it grants PhDs & has a Law school.

While this would be the most easily understood I’d say it doesn’t really hold up the older you get. Most of my friends would say “Back when I was in college…” or even “Back when I was in school…” to indicate either undergraduate or graduate studies. It’s all pretty flexible.

Could you elaborate on your friends’ situations, or do you have too many examples? So far in my life in academia, I’ve never heard anyone of any age refer to their graduate studies as “college”. Not saying you haven’t – just wondering if it is a usage that depends on location, age, discipline, or just having weird friends.

The word “college” can have multiple meanings, depending on context.

A college can be a standalone institution, such as “XYZ Community College”. In this context, it refers to a school which primarily offers undergraduate degrees, and may be primarily a 2-year or 4-year school.

In a large university, there are subdivisions known as colleges. For example, ABC State University might include the College of Fine Arts, the College of Mathematics, etc.

And, as has been mentioned above, college is a generic term referring to any undergraduate level of education.

Conceptually speaking, in American English, all post-secondary institutions are “colleges” in the generic sense. When it comes to the formal names of specific institutions, the matter is arbitrary – they might choose to use any of several words in their names: college, university, academy, institute, school – but in a conceptual sense they are all colleges.

Furthermore, in American English, all educational institutions, regardless of the level, are “schools.” This is also different from British English, in which “school” cannot be applied to a post-secondary institution.

No, a professional school is never a “university” or “college” by itself.

It’s true that college is primarily used to indicate undergraduate study. But I’ve heard it used at times to distinguish the years of studying from the years out in the work world.

Grad school is used for most post-collegiate education. Postgraduate studies is mostly an academic term. I can’t remember anybody using it in casual conversation. A postdoc, on the other hand, is a common term, meaning additional research time spent after getting one’s Ph.D. but before landing a job as a professor or in industry. There’s a further confusion in that while professional schools, like law, medicine or business, are technically grad school, almost nobody refers to them as grad school. If you’re going on in English or Physics, i.e. the arts, humanities, or sciences, you’re in grad school. Otherwise you’re in law school or medical school or getting your MBA. (Nobody says business school, which has the connotation of a low-level secretarial instruction.)

The U.S. has this weird confusion of terms because it has a weird history of colleges. Unlike in Europe, in which there were a few schools associated mostly with the capital of a country or region, every sizable town immediately created a college as soon as eight or ten people were available to attend one. “Professors” were often young and barely educated themselves, just a step ahead of their students. By the mid-1850s the U.S. may have had more colleges than the rest of the world combined.

The schools didn’t resemble Oxford or Heidelberg, which were where the elite still went to get a real education. There were “normal” schools, or state teacher’s colleges; “land grant” schools, which taught the practical sciences of agriculture and mining; theological seminaries, hundreds of them to cater to the ever-splitting protestant sects; liberal arts academies, which purported to give a classical education to young gentlemen (and a few women by the end of the century); and a smattering of medical, dental, nursing, osteopathic, homeopathic, and basically pathetic institutions that turned out horrifyingly unqualified healing practitioners.

Around the turn of the century, the elite universities deliberately tried to elevate themselves from this mass by creating “professional” schools of medicine, business, law, journalism, architecture, and others, that would have true professional disciplines and curricula. Each of these was known as a college. Correspondingly, they created the College of Arts and Sciences, the College of Engineering, the Music College, and so on out of the non-professional side – combining both undergraduate and graduate - to ensure prestige for those professors. The whole conglomeration became the University.

Undergraduate education was no longer as much a end in itself as a preparation for graduate work. You majored in a subject in college and then went on to take a master’s or doctorate in that subject in graduate school. This could be taken too far - Ohio University had a School of Radio-Television in its College of Communications - but as a larger and larger percent of the population went on to college, the prestige of a college degree dropped and the need for a graduate degree increased.

There are about 4000 degree-granting institutions in the U.S. today (probably including two-year community colleges or junior universities or technical schools). That total spans an enormous variation of type and quality and size. No one word satisfies that whole range. Both college and university are generalized approximations of what any one individual may have experienced.

Nobody else in the world has this history that I know of, so no wonder it confuses everybody else. It confuses a lot of us, too.

Except for the London School of Economics, for instance (which is, in fact a college at the University of London)

Professional schools are rarely standalone institutions but are almost always part of a university. Someone attending one of those schools would not typically refer to herself as attending the university, however. Generically, she would say “I am going to law school.” To specify a particular place, she would say, “I am going to Harvard Medical School” or “I am attending law school at Michigan” (meaning the University of Michigan).

The examples of standalone professional schools that leap to mind are a medical school and a law school that are both part of the overall public university system in California. Thus the University of California at San Francisco is exclusively a medical school, and the University of California, Hastings College of the Law (despite having both “college” and “university” in its name) is exclusively a law school.

Certain business schools, although affiliated with universities, have separate names. A student there would say, I am attending Wharton Business School, rather than “I am in business school at the University of Pennsylvania,” at least in a professional environment. If the student is talking to someone who wouldn’t be expected to know these names, as a matter of clarity she might say, “I’m going to the Darden School, the business school at the University of Virginia.”

Bonus confusion: Boston College and Boston University are two totally separate schools. Both are universities (in the sense of awarding graduate degrees).

Correct me if I’m wrong, but that’s not even an exception, because it uses “School” as part of its formal name, not “school” in a generic sense. A student at the L.S.E. wouldn’t say something like “I can’t stay out late tonight, because I have to go to school early in the morning,” would they?

(Actually, an American would most likely say “I’ve got class in the morning,” but “school” wouldn’t be considered remarkable in that sense.)

That’s a helpful primer to the history of the U.S. education system, *Exapno. Thanks to you and everyone else!

There’s also a number of constituent colleges in British universities called “University College”, which is similiarly confusing (especially since they are just as much affiliated to the university as any other college).

Exactly. College (or school) is separate from the working world. This is especially true if someone got their Masters or additional degree right after undergraduate. It all gets lumped into a single period of their life.