“University students”

College students, but complicated. Institutions of higher education are traditionally “universities” in the U.K. but in the U.S. (and Scotland!), the term “college,” the OED notes, “has come to be interchangeable with ‘university.'” The traditional English meaning of “college,” meanwhile, is given by the OED as a “society of scholars incorporated within or in connection with a University”; more recently, it has been used to refer to some specialized, often technical or vocational institution.

In any case, undergraduates have traditionally been collectively referred to as “university students” in the U.K,. “college students” in the U.S. The usages are difficult to chart precisely because of the various meanings of the terms, because of instances where both graduate students and undergraduates are being referred to (and where “university students” would be traditionally used even in the U.S.), and because many search engine hits for “university students” will be on the order of “Penn State University students.” But my gut tells me “university students” is on the rise in the U.S. Incidentally, Google Ngram suggests that “college students” is on the rise in the U.K.!

I still hope to lure him abroad for an occasional video piece, but mostly he will be in Los Angeles recovering from the last five years’ journeys. He will continue to work with university students, promoting web video and showing them how to develop their own multimedia, and he also would like to do more with not-for-profits.” (Nicholas Kristof, New York Times, April 8, 2008)

“’I think that we as university students should get some sort of deal,’ Jennifer Friedmann ’13 said of the paywall. ‘I hope the library grants full access to the [New York Times] website.’” (Yale Daily News, March 23, 2011. Note that Ms. Friedmann is a college sophomore.)

19 thoughts on ““University students”

  1. I think there may be a slight misunderstanding about the term ‘college students’ in the UK. I’m an American living in the UK for many years now, but no experience of the educational system so I cannot give precise definitions, but for the most part college in the UK refers to the later years of what is called high school in the US (though in Scotland they also use the term high school and not college) and is not equivalent to junior colleges or universities in the US. So the term ‘college students’ is not being used to describe anyone pursuing a four-year BA/BSc degree, but to a group of students preparing to gain qualifications beyond high school level be that a BA or what might be equivalent to a 2-year diploma in the US. (I may have that slightly wrong, but it certainly doesn’t mean university students.) The confusion may enter when you look at universities like Cambridge or Oxford which require students to associate themselves with a college much like one would a department though the American university that I went to was set up in a style akin to Cambridge and Oxford and I was affiliated with a college when I was there.

  2. Thanks, Shannon. Clearly, the meaning of “college” and “college students” in the UK needs further clarification, and I look forward to getting some from natives.

  3. As a Scottish university student, I can tell you that the uses of “college” and “university” refer to different types of institution. After leaving high school, one may attend college for one or two year courses in a wide offering of courses, from beauty and hairdressing, to mechanical engineering. If the qualifications achieved in high school were poor or not sufficient, high school qualifications can also be gained in college.

    University however is the only institution allowed to award degrees (such as four year bachelors degrees or postgraduate degrees). (Some colleges can, but they need to be associated with a university to do this.) In some cases, completing a college course in a subject may allow entry into the 2nd or 3rd year of a university course.

    To add slightly to the confusion, some of the bigger universities (as far as I know only Oxford, Cambridge and Edinburgh) have chosen to organise themselves into “College” which is primarily an administrative division and not a separate entity.

  4. This is actually a (mildly) interesting lack of appreciation on the part of the OED on the different educational systems in the UK.

    In England, a college is – more often than not – where you take your last two years of high school (and, yes, we call in high school in Scotland).

    In Scotland, a college is a place of higher education for adults of all ages similar to an American junior/community college.

    So, you go to a Scots college to learn a trade or take night classes or get a National Diploma.

    For a degree qualification, you go to a university for four years.

    We not NOT in Scotland refer to universities as colleges.

  5. The difference is used to underline the various selectiveness of educational institutions, especially before many polytechnics ( lower down scale) were overnight transformed into universities.
    I am a graduate of the London SCHOOL of Economics ( which is actually a division of London University). Oxbridge grads usually refer to their college rather than the University- at least among themselves.
    Confusing? Of course, designed to seperate the sheep and the goats in the usual subtle English fashion. If you have to ask……

    1. It is perhaps worth adding that whilst Oxford and Cambridge students are members of a specific college within the relevant university, I’m pretty sure they would still refer to themselves as being university students, not college students. (And as being “at university”, not “at college”.)

  6. Colleges in Oxford and Cambridge are self-governing institutions federated into a university. They admit junior and senior members who take their fancy, arrange the teaching, charge fees for boarding and tuition, and award bursaries. Some other universities do have colleges, (Durham, ?Lancaster) but they are not independent. The colleges of London University seem to be virtual universities in themselves – is that right? It would be interesting to hear about Aberdeen and St Andrews, which are also collegiate.

  7. ^ It is to my knowledge that St Andrews – while it operates on a ‘college system’ as well – unlike the Oxbridge college systems, it serves more purpose in terms of formality (or, dare I say, poshness). While colleges at Oxbridge carry out duties such as the ones already outlined above (e.g. each has funding to give to their own students, tutorials are mostly college-based, etc.) – St Andrews’ colleges are more of a ‘separate living area’. Whereas Oxbridge colleges are mostly self-regulatory, St Andrews’ colleges operate more ‘under the same roof’. I hope that clears things up.

  8. if you hear someone in North America mention his or her time as a “university student” it may be because he or she is Canadian. In Canada, as in Britain, “college” refers to what Americans call “junior college.”

  9. It’s all very confusing, even for the Brits to work out, especially as the entire system has changed since I was traditionally university and college age (1990’s). There are different types of college: A college of Further Education, which offers vocational training from around the age of 16 years and a College of Higher Education, which refers to University level training (degree level). Sometimes these are referred to as Polytechnic Colleges. I don’t know why. Most Colleges of HE/Polytechnics have become Universities. I suspect that the definitions of college in various dictionaries are not the same as the terms used in the educational system in either England, or the rest of the UK.

  10. As an American, when I talk about a college, I mean an institution that offers either AA or BA/BS degrees, whereas when I talk about a university, I mean an institution that offers MA/MS/MFA and doctoral degrees.

    For example, UCLA is a university, and has not only bachelors programs, but masters and doctoral programs, as well as a medical, law, and dental school. On the other hand Santa Monica City College offers only AA and AAS degrees. Pomona College offers BA/BS degrees.

  11. I’m English and a student studying at Uni (University is nearly always abbreviated to Uni) in the UK. We have several tiers of education. They are as follows; Playgroup (pre-school) Primary School (not sure what this is in America), High School (Elementary School) You leave high school at the age of 15 or 16 in the UK and you can then go to College which provides both further and higher education courses and then Uni which provides higher education courses only. You can study a Degree at College or Uni, it is more likely that you do not live on Campus and you are from the local area if you are studying at College, whereas, most people at Uni are from all over the Country and World. You do not have to complete any further education after High School if you do not wish.

    1. Basic UK schools:
      Age 3-5: Nursery school
      Age 4-11: Primary school, often subdivided into Infant and Junior
      Age 11-16: Secondary school
      Compulsory education ends here.
      Age 16-18: Sixth form, usually at the secondary school but sometimes at a sixth form college.
      Sometimes if you haven’t achieved the required A-level grades you can still enter University but your course lasts an extra year so that you can catch up, so to speak.

  12. TychaBrahe is correct that there is a traditional division in American higher education between “colleges” and “universities.” The dividing line is, as stated, between institutions that award associate and/or bachelors degrees only (colleges) and those that also (and in a few cases only) award graduate and professional degrees like masters and doctoral degrees (universities).

    This is confused in the USA right now because we have been going through a period of name inflation in which many traditional colleges have sought — through the addition of a limited number of graduate degree programs — to be able to call themselves universities. This has been partly a reflection of legitimate program expansion in response to need and partly the result of a desire to enhance the institution’s prestige through a change of name.

    As a result, more and more people in the USA are attending universities, and fewer and fewer are attending colleges. Hence, it is increasingly said that someone is attending a university, not simply going to college.

    All of this is further confused because most universities in the USA have organizational units within them called colleges. Presumably this is also, at least to a degree, about institutional prestige, perhaps in imitation of the nomenclature for the organizational structure of the Oxbridge-style universities in the UK.

    But that too is confusing, because in the USA the colleges of a university are organizations of members of the faculty (according to academic discipline) who provide instruction to the students who enroll in the university. At Oxford and Cambridge, the colleges enroll the students who then are taught by members of the faculty of the various departments of the university.

    And so it goes . . . . .

  13. So much misinformation about non-Scottish British (hereinafter British for concision – apologies to Scots) educational institutions here, mainly from Scots, admittedly, who I’m sure are spot on when describing their own system but err when extending it to the rest of the country. Neil Rashbrook has it right for British schools that are free to attend, while private schools (ie paid-for, including those generally known as ‘public’) generally provide prep (preparatory) school until 13 followed by a different paid-for secondary school until, normally, 18. At 16, British students sit GCSEs which, at grade C or above, are equivalent to a US high school diploma; the US system starts later and takes a little longer. At 18, English A level exams are roughly equivalent to AP tests.

    As has been noted, some British universities were historically formed from groups of colleges that have retained their individual names. These are in some senses, as Shannon notes, the equivalent of departments at some US universities, but without the specialisation. British unis may also have ‘schools’ for specialised areas, like Harvard. According to the British Council there are currently 16 colleges (including three called University College!) that can award their own degrees, thus being universities in all but name, largely for historical reasons. Apart from those, colleges in general offer education beyond compulsory schooling that does not lead to a degree. As well as sixth-form colleges leading to ‘A levels’, there are colleges offering vocational, technical and academic qualifications at sub-degree level, roughly equivalent to an American associate degree. Since only universities can award degrees the UK does not distinguish between institutions that award bachelor and master degrees and doctorates.

    Most English bachelor degrees follow three-year courses, unlike the Scottish and American four-year courses.

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