Online Colleges and Universities: What's the Difference?

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In the virtual reality education world, the words "college" and "university" are tossed around very loosely and without any seemingly logical strategy. Just do a search on Google for an online school and you'll see how often "online college" and "online university" are used interchangeably. In reality, online college differs from an online university much like any traditional college differs from a traditional university.

One method of determining whether a traditional school is a college or a university has been based on criteria designated by the U.S. government.

How the Government Defines College and University

  • In their guidelines, the U.S. government defines college as "an institution of higher learning that offers undergraduate programs, usually of a four-year duration, that lead to the bachelor's degree in the arts or sciences. The term 'college' is also used in a general sense to refer to a postsecondary institution. A college may also be part of the organizational structure of a university."
  • The government defines "university" as an educational institution that "usually maintains one or more four-year undergraduate colleges (or schools) with programs leading to a bachelor's degree, a graduate school of arts and sciences awarding master's degrees and doctorates, and graduate professional schools."

Still, just going by whether a school is a college or university as a deciding factor can be misleading. There are some schools, like Dartmouth College, that are actually a university and offer several higher education programs, but have chosen to keep "college" as their name. There are also colleges that are called "university" but are specialized higher learning institutes that only offer undergraduate programs.

The Carnegie Classification System

Another gauge commonly used is the Carnegie Classification system, which was developed by the Carnegie Commission on Higher Learning. The classification is a way to deal with the great diversity of colleges and universities in the U.S., and these classifications help to identify groups of roughly comparable institutions.

The classification is broken down into several areas, including enrollment, size and setting, but the most specific to colleges and universities are the "Basic Classifications," which place an institution, whether it is a traditional or online school, into one of the following classes:

  • Associate's Colleges - Includes institutions where all degrees are at the associate's level, or where bachelor's degrees account for less than 10 percent of all undergraduate degrees
  • Doctorate-granting Universities - Includes institutions that award at least 20 doctoral degrees per year
  • Master's Colleges and Universities - Generally includes institutions that award at least 50 master's degrees and fewer than 20 doctoral degrees per year. (Some institutions above the master's degree threshold are included among Baccalaureate Colleges, and some below the threshold are included among Master's Colleges and Universities
  • Baccalaureate Colleges - Includes institutions where baccalaureate degrees represent at least 10 percent of all undergraduate degrees and that award fewer than 50 master's degrees or 20 doctoral degrees per year
  • Special Focus Institutions - Institutions awarding baccalaureate or higher-level degrees where a high concentration of degrees is in a single field or set of related fields
  • Tribal Colleges - Colleges and universities that are members of the American Indian Higher Education Consortium

The Right Choice is What Works for You

What is more important for students trying to navigate the online learning world is getting an online college degree or university degree online from the right school. Online schools are a smart way to advance—or attain—your career goals because you'll ultimately save money and time. You won't have a costly commute and you can pace yourself and learn on your own schedule.

And while some employers may consider a degree from The Johns Hopkins University Medical School more desirable than a degree from a state college if they're trying to hire an ace neurosurgeon, most employers are looking for educated, qualified employees who have graduated from an accredited school. This means you can make your personal education choice based upon which program best fits your career goals and your busy lifestyle.