College  |  January 22, 2019  |  Ventrice Shanklin

The cost of attending college vs university

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 scholarshipscollege 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.


Sallie Mae does not provide, and these materials are not meant to convey, financial, tax, or legal advice. Sallie Mae makes no claims about the accuracy or adequacy of this information. These materials may not reflect Sallie Mae’s view or endorsement. Consult your own attorney or tax advisor about your specific circumstances. Reproduction without explicit permission is prohibited.