What’s the Difference between a Technical College and a University?

You’ve probably seen terms like “university,” “college,” and “technical college” used in different schools’ names. If you’re not sure what they mean or how they make schools different from each other, you’re not alone. These terms are not universal, but in general they can tell you something about a school’s approach to education. Understanding the school’s approach can then help you decide whether that school is likely to offer the types of programs you are looking for.

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College and University

Traditionally, a college is a school for studying subjects in a certain general area. For example, a “college of the arts” would offer classes in the fine arts, such as music, art, and theater. A “college of education” would offer classes in how to teach different types of people or subjects.

Many large universities are made up of multiple colleges for different subject areas. For instance, Example University is made up of the Example University College of Sciences, the Example University College of Business, etc. However, some schools, such as Boston College or The College of William and Mary, are made up of multiple schools just like a university, but use “college” in their name. Often, these schools started as a small college with a particular specialty and just never changed their name as they grew into universities.

In some countries, the term “college” refers to what we call a “junior college,” while “university” designates a school of the highest academic level. In others, people will say they attend a certain college within a university instead of saying they attend the university, such as when someone says they attend Christ Church, a college within Oxford University in England. Usually this is done when the university’s colleges are very well-known.

In addition to associate’s and bachelor’s degrees, a university will offer graduate degrees — the master’s, the doctorate (Ph.D.), the Juris Doctor ( J.D.), and the M.D. These degrees are required for specialized jobs like teaching college, becoming a lawyer, or practicing medicine.

Junior College and Community College

Junior colleges are small schools that only award associate’s degrees, hence why they are sometimes called “two-year schools.” Many people used to think that these schools were only for students who had finished high school but still lacked the skills or grades to attend a university, but that’s not the case. As more students have decided to attend junior colleges, many of these schools have begun awarding bachelor’s degrees and now call themselves community colleges because they offer more degrees and a wider range of programs than the traditional junior college. 

Community colleges are actually many students’ first choice when they first finish high school. There are a number of reasons for this, such as a desire to save money, to figure out if college is right for them, to explore possible majors before choosing one, to attend school in a smaller environment, or to take advantage of smaller class sizes. Most community colleges offer the same basic educational experience that a university does, including honor societies and social experiences, however, universities do provide some opportunities for research or graduate work (that is, degrees beyond the bachelor’s) that community colleges may not. However, many students start at a community college and later attend a university. In fact, some studies suggest students who start at community colleges and transfer to universities outperform students who start at universities.

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Liberal Arts College

Most colleges and universities follow a “liberal arts” model that requires students to have a little knowledge in a lot of subjects in addition to a specialty (called a “major”). This is probably similar to your experience in high school, where you were required to take a certain number of courses in English, math, history, science, and electives. This is because the liberal arts model of education is designed to teach students general skills like critical thinking, communication, and adaptability rather than skills for a specific job. Advocates of this model claim that liberal arts graduates will be able to teach themselves the specific skills necessary for most jobs because of their broad knowledge base. Therefore, they argue, liberal arts graduates will be able to adapt to a changing job market.

While most schools will follow a liberal arts curriculum, there are specific institutions known as liberal arts colleges. Usually these are small, private schools that emphasize the humanities and fine arts. Universities usually offer “tracks” within a major that allow students to specialize. An example would be how an English major could specialize in a track such as literature, journalism, creative writing, professional writing, or teaching English. In contrast, a liberal arts college usually allows less specialization in favor of broader knowledge, so in the former example of an English major, all students taking English would have a few courses in each of those tracks.

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Technical School

Also known as vocational schools or trade schools, technical colleges have a more career-focused curriculum. The programs they offer are designed to train students in the skills they will need for a very specific job. Popular programs at technical colleges include many jobs in the medical field: radiologist, phlebotomist, dental assistant, medical office assistant, or medical billing and coding. But technical schools also offer more mechanical programs like HVAC repair, automotive repair, plumbing, and some construction jobs like cabinetry or welding. The goal of such programs is to develop a limited number of highly-specialized skills.

For many students, the appeal of technical education is that it’s designed to lead directly into a specific position in the workforce. Many technical programs offer apprenticeships that allow students to work in their chosen field as part of their college credit, giving them valuable job experience and contacts that can help them find full-time employment upon graduation. Technical programs also tend to be shorter because they do not require students to take as many courses outside their field of study. Finally, depending on the student’s program of study, technical education can be significantly cheaper than liberal arts programs.

The Upshot

The difference between universities and technical colleges is how they approach preparing their students for the workforce. Colleges and universities provide students with broad skill sets that students can adapt to many professional jobs, while technical colleges teach the skills necessary for a particular job.

Despite what you might read in the media, one type of school is not better than the other. Both technical schools and universities challenge their students, and graduates from both types of institution can be highly successful in the workplace. It takes intelligence, determination, and dedication to complete a program at any institution of higher learning.

In the end, the right choice for you–technical school or community college or university–depends on the career goals you want to pursue and the type of institution that will best help you reach those goals.

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