Did you know that “College” in the United States is not the same as “College” in England, or even in Ireland, Australia, Canada or other countries having this type of institution? Learn the differences and know what you can study at each country’s College.


1. College for Higher Education

In some countries, “College” is attended by students at a high school level or lower, in the United States, the word “College” is mostly a synonym of University.

In the United States, students start their Higher Education studies on their 13rd scholar year/grade, at the age of 17-18 or older.

Although both institutions offer Higher Education programs, the terms “College” and “University” have its differences even within the American territory. So, which disparities are we talking about?

  • A “College” normally offers two-year programmes – the so-called “Associate Degree” – or three year programmes – equivalent to a Bachelor’s Degree – besides Certificate and Diploma courses.
  • A University has a diversified range of courses at the Undergraduate and Postgraduate level, such as Masters and PhDs.

University is, therefore, more comprehensive than “College”. Typically, since a University can represent a group of several Higher Education schools, it normally includes a College amongst its structure and within its University campus, whether it is a public or private institution. Did we mess up your thoughts?

Let’s make it clear: inside an educational institution called “University”, you find several schools offering different levels and areas of study for you to take. A “College” is, when inside a University, the school you should register in if you want to take a short programme, get a Certificate or a Diploma or to study an Undergraduate program.

If you’ve already completed your Undergrad program and you’re now looking for Postgraduate studies, inside the University, you have other schools (institutes, faculties or departments) available to apply to, in order to complete your academic studies.

Only one more detail: there are also Colleges in the US which are not part of a University.  These are independent Colleges but, just as University Colleges, only offer Undergraduate courses, Diplomas and Certificates.

But then you ask: if I can study my Undergraduate course both at University (general) and in a College (independent), why does everyone say is “going to College” in the United States?

This is because, in the country, the term “College” is more popular than University – this happens even when you are attending a big University for your Undergraduate program. Only when they are studying at a Postgraduate level, you’ll hear the expression “attending University” from American students. Before Undergrad, they study at “High School”.


Image 1: whether it is because of cinema, internet influence or just by interacting with your colleagues, we bet: you will also end up saying “I’m going to College” instead of “I’m going to University” while doing your Undergrad in the United States.


2. College as High School

Did you know that...

In the Ancient Roman Empire, the word “Collegium” used to stand for a group of people living under common rules, like a society or association.

 Other countries apply the word “College” on their educational fields, however differently from the United States.

If you want to complete your High School studies in Ireland, for instance, you must register in a College. This also happens in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and South Africa or even in other countries having English as one of its official languages. In these places, an institution named “College” normally offers High School education, for the most part under independent or private management, as an alternative to the Government-run “High Schools”. Some Colleges, depending on the country, can also provide Primary and Secondary Education.

According to this, College matches the education you take previous to joining a Higher Education institution – i.e., before you enter University. “College” in these places is the “High School” in the US, and not the same as “University”.

However, College ≠ University also has its variations.

In some cases, a College offers such diversified education it can range from High School studies to diploma and Certificate courses, University Pathways, Pre-University programs or even Higher Education. So, in that sense, yes, it is a bit like the US system.


Have you ever heard about King’s College London, in the United Kingdom? It is a good example of an institution with the word “College” on its name but that is, actually, part of a University – the University of London. It is a very similar case to the American model: King’s College London delivers post-High School education, such as certificate and diploma courses, but it belongs to a more comprehensive institution, the University, which also offers Higher Education paths.

Image 2: The King's College London.

Yet Imperial College, also located in London, offers Higher Education, from Bachelor’s Degrees to PhDs, despite its name. At the Belfast Metropolitan College, in Northern Ireland, you will find Diploma and Certificate courses. Although they are not considered Higher Education, they provide you an advanced study level if, after completion of your High School or Secondary studies, you don’t want to go straight to University.


So, if a friend of yours tells you he is going to “attend College abroad”, how do you know which educational level he is at? Smart tip: ask what his destination country is: if it’s the United States, he is certainly going to study Higher Education; if he is going to Australia or Canada, he is going to study High School; if he is going to the UK, then...well, both the previous are possible.

Do you know what is actually the best way to find it out? Discover yourself and join him studying at different Colleges around the world. Choose your destination and start having your own study abroad experience ASAP!