What's in a word? Colleges or Universities in the US context

For families looking to study in the United States, the rankings pages are a helpful place to start. World rankings such as QS and Times Higher can give a sense of how things compare, and to link institutions that they may be unfamiliar with to those whose quality they already know. As a result, many families I start working with mention names of universities to me; very rarely do they bring up ‘colleges’.

Let me explain why. A university, in the truest sense of the word, consists of students at different stages of their education: undergraduates completing their bachelor’s degree and postgraduates working towards masters and doctoral degrees. They typically tend also to have a lot of research output, with professors making discoveries and writing books while also doing teaching. Outside the United States, this is what we imagine when we use the word ‘university’.

However, the US also has a range of ‘colleges’. A college does not do any of the postgraduate stuff: there’s no-one doing masters or doctoral degrees and the entire focus of the university is undergraduate education. As there’s no (or little) research output, they don’t appear on world rankings and thus can be invisible to many families.

That doesn’t mean that these aren’t amazing institutions. At the time of writing, Pomona College is more selective than Brown, Penn and Dartmouth, all Ivy League universities. Colleges such as Amherst, Williams and Oberlin have reputations across the US that lie as highly as names such as Duke or NYU. US colleges offer an education that is absolutely first-rate and, in my eyes, potentially a much better ‘fit’ for many of the students I work with.

For students in the UK attending boarding schools, the US colleges can be a much better option than stepping into a huge university which might not suit them best. The focus on a residential community, an all-round education, and being a human who is known to faculty and staff, fits very nicely for those who have excelled in the UK independent school sector. As well as ranking universities, US News & World Report also ranks colleges: readers, please do look at both lists before committing to your application shortlist.

David Hawkins