School, College, or University: What’s the Difference?

woman sitting on concrete stairs using laptop
Madeleine Karydes
Madeleine Karydes

Madeleine attended UC Berkeley and double-majored in English and Media Studies. She is now an integral part of the Empowerly team.

You’ve probably heard the words “school,” “college,” and “university” used almost interchangeably in higher education circles. While they may seem to be almost indistinguishable, the differences actually do matter when you’re putting together your college applications list! In any case, it’s best to know what the terms mean exactly so you can approach your decisions with confidence. 

What’s more, the overlap can be particularly confusing for international applicants or those who are unfamiliar with the degree-granting process in the United States. Don’t worry: today, we’ll get to the bottom of it, and help you understand what you need to know. Empowerly is here to ensure you don’t miss out on any opportunities that are a great fit for you or your student. 


First, let’s start with the term “school.” School is a pretty universal word. In fact, it can refer to any institution of education, from kindergarten on through high school graduation. Some even use this term casually to refer to post-secondary education as well (ie, colleges and universities). Ultimately, school is a general term that applies in many scenarios.

Here’s a helpful breakdown. In America…

  • Grades 1st through 5th or 6th are usually called “elementary school.” 
  • Grades 6th or 7th on through 8th or 9th are alternately referred to as “middle school” or “junior high school,” depending on the region. 
  • Next, grades 9th through 12th are “high school” or, less commonly, “secondary school.” 
  • Finally, the topic we are discussing most in this article is post-secondary schooling: grades 13 and up. Students in the US are usually 17 or 18 years old when they begin grade 13 (also known as “freshman year”).


Next up, “college” refers to a particular kind of higher education: specifically, to trade schools, professional or pre-professional degrees, and liberal arts campuses. These are distinct because they are typically smaller and offer fewer curriculum choices to students. 

However, the word “college” has become almost synonymous with the entire application process. Today, many students talk about “going to college” or “college admissions,” implying colleges, universities, and other specialized continuing education. This has led to a much more general definition of the word. Don’t let that throw you off!

The reason for this double-meaning is that in contemporary education, colleges actually can grant four-year Bachelor’s degrees. Moreover, many of them are highly ranked and competitive to attend. Remember that schools which call themselves “colleges” shouldn’t be struck from your list because the term college has a different meaning in other countries or languages.

Pros of attending a traditional college:
  • Flexibility of scheduling and convenience of locations
  • Faster time to a degree
  • Smaller class sizes and access to student resources
  • More affordable tuition


Universities are likely what come to mind when many people picture students going off to school after graduating from 12th grade.  What you may not know is that the word “university” specifically refers to an associated, streamlined coalition of learning resources—colleges, libraries, laboratories, and more. The campus of a university contains myriad options for further learning no matter the field you want to pursue. Many universities even meld with the surrounding city or town. 

But let’s circle back for a moment: yes, universities can contain colleges within them! For example, the University of California, San Diego encourages students to specialize in a specific college, though they ultimately receive their degree from UCSD itself. These colleges may include a College of Engineering or College of Chemistry, and often a general “College of Letters and Science” (aka, the humanities, social sciences and natural sciences, considered together).

Some university systems even have multiple campuses (different sites where the same leadership is in charge). The University of California system is a great example of this, as well! For instance, there are UC campuses across the state, including Berkeley, Los Angeles, Davis, and more. While each university has its own personality and is distinct, the features of the UC schools are, at minimum, loosely associated together.

Pros of attending a traditional university:
  • Most diverse options for study
  • Well-rounded breadth-based education
  • Research and other opportunities plentiful
  • Retention of award-winning faculty

In summary…

As you can see, understanding the differences between school, college, or university is a bit complex. However, it can only help you make better decisions.

If you’re still not sure what it all means for your college application process, feel free to reach out to our welcoming and supportive team! We are here because we love helping students realize their potential. Our experts are happy to talk through your options and guide you through the process. 

Questions? Let us know!