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The cost of attending college vs university

College • January 22, 2019 • Ventrice Shanklin


What you’ll learn

  • The difference between a college and university
  • How to compare the cost of colleges and universities
  • How to find the right school for you


When I was growing up, my parents didn’t always emphasize the importance of a college education. My goal now, as a higher education professional, is to let students and families know that a college education is attainable, and to help them figure out which school will best fit their needs.

Here’s how to better understand the cost of college vs university:

What’s the difference between college and university?

Many students and families assume a college and university are one and the same and use the terms interchangeably. However, there are key differences between colleges and universities—mainly the size of the school and its academic offerings.

Four-year colleges typically offer bachelor’s degrees and sometimes graduate degree programs in selected subjects. Two-year community or junior colleges often offer short-term programs, certificate programs, and associate degrees.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Education defines a university as a group of schools that typically offers many academic programs for undergraduate students, and advanced degrees such as master’s and doctorate degrees. In some cases, they also offer advanced degrees in areas like medicine and law.

Finding the cost of college vs university

Higher education costs vary across states and schools. It’s important to research all financial and educational options before deciding on a school.

An easy way to compare college vs. university costs is to create a simple spreadsheet. Include the total cost of attendance for each school, which can include tuition, fees, room and board, books and supplies, and other living expenses.

There are also free online comparison tools and college planning calculators available. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau offers a free tool that can assist students and families in comparing college costs and financial aid. Make sure to compare all of your financial aid award letters.

A few tips on choosing a college vs university

    Here are my top tips for helping you and your family decide on the best college or university:
  1. Map out your education and career goals—it’s okay if you don’t know everything you want to do yet.

  2. Look for various ways to pay for college such as savings, college scholarships, college grants, and federal or private student loans.

  3. Complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) beginning October 1 of your senior year of high school.

  4. Meet all financial aid and college application deadlines for colleges and universities you listed on the FAFSA.

  5. Compare college vs university costs, financial aid opportunities, and campus culture.

Pick the school that’s right for you

Ultimately, the name of the school isn’t that important. The most important thing to remember when choosing whether to attend a college vs university is finding a school that fits your career goals, educational needs, and budget.


Ventrice Shanklin is a business development director at Sallie Mae. She loves to read and finishes at least three books each month.


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Sallie Mae does not provide financial, tax, or legal advice and the information contained in this article does not constitute tax, legal, or financial advice. Sallie Mae does not make any claims, promises, or guarantees about the accuracy, completeness, or adequacy of the information contained in this article. Readers should consult their own attorneys or other tax advisors regarding any financial strategies mentioned in this article. These materials are for informational purposes only and do not necessarily reflect the views or endorsement of Sallie Mae.