Institutions: University vs. College vs. Institute vs. Academy vs. School: What’s The Actual Difference?

Searching for the right college is difficult enough; unfortunately, its even more difficult these days thanks to an increasing number of campuses purposefully misusing titles and labels in order to “boost” their reputation, in an effort to recruit more students. Of course, this mess is driven assumedly by a greedy thirst for money, now that so many schools prioritize profits over quality academic discourse.

In older times, the Holy Roman Emperor and other power holders were in charge of establishing regulations for higher education of the era. But these days, with the American government unwilling to or uninterested in regulating the higher education system, the “free market” and academic circles are left trying to make sense of it all. (Contrast this chaos with Australia, for example, whose government strictly prohibits any usage of the term “university” by non-approved educational institutions.)

Brief History: ‘Universitas’ Vs. ‘Akademia’

Admittedly, there is quite a bit of confusion regarding the history of such words as “university” or “college” or “institution” – and so forth. Take for example the etymology of the word “university” which is rooted in Latin universitas, meaning “the whole, total; the universe, the world” – or more literally, “all turned into one.”

According to Steve Hedley, an academic lawyer at the National University of Ireland, the term universitas was actually more of a casual term referring to the guild of masters/professors and scholars/students within a Studium generale – the official name for European universities found in government documents and papal decrees.

Hedley goes on to explain why academy – and its Platonic + Greek origins – perhaps would have been a more appropriate word when referring to what are now called universities; however, that term has now largely lost much of its prestige:

“University” appears to have its origins in Latin. This is odd, however, because while the Romans knew of teachers, students, scholarship, and libraries, they had nothing that could be regarded as a university in the modern sense (at least not before the Pandidakterion at Constantinople, founded in 425 AD). Quite common would have been the “academiae” – specialist schools or institutes, the word and the concept being borrowed from the Greeks (or more specifically, the Athenians of the 4th century BC – the original “Akademia” was the site where Plato taught). While this has given us the word “academic”, nonetheless “academy” has retained its Greek and Latin connotations of compactness and specialism. No modern institution that could claim the title “university” would ever describe itself as an “academy”.

‘University’ – Just Another Trendy Word?

Hedley’s general premise is that A) modern universities quite misunderstand the original “guild” meaning of universitas, and that B) even in their attempt to glorify a broader understanding of the word universitas, they get it largely wrong these days. Instead, Hedley argues that its Greek cousin, akademia, which refers directly to specialized schools/communities, is perhaps more accurate. He concludes:

“University” therefore hints at a very different world from that which universities now inhabit, both externally and internally. An important feature of any modern university would be a claim to a broad or “universal” knowledge, but this seems to be a linguistic accident. If the word were still being used in its original sense, it would more properly be applied to an academic trade union, staff association or student union. Internally and structurally, modern universities bear little resemblance to the mediaeval “universitates”, which often ran themselves in a very democratic spirit. We can say (with a negative spin) that internal university “democracy”, while not quite dead, is in very poor shape; or (with a positive spin) that a democratic freedom to raise awkward intellectual questions is now better established throughout the whole of society, and so the universities no longer stand out to the extent that they once did. The older universities still occasionally refer to themselves in the old spirit; so for example the charter of University College Cork (1908) refers to the college as a “Body Corporate”, and lists its membership, including staff students and graduates. However, while the corporate status of universities is of continuing importance, their membership for legal purposes is of little modern significance.

It is hard to argue with Hedley’s point. Declaring you are something doesn’t make it so – and modern-day universities claiming to encompass all aspects of traditional and progressive studies in a democratic, philosophical, or determinedly-scientific light does not make it true. More to the point: when for-profit “companies” like the University of Phoenix are calling themselves a university, despite lacking core Studium generale elements like “Masters” professors to teach all courses, it certainly begs some questions.

But perhaps Hedley’s conclusion is overly (purposefully?) broad. Certainly if the historical meaning of akademia is a “specialized school”, then it might apply to a contemporary nursing school, for example, or even an online course in web design. And if that is true, would throwing Cambridge University into the same bucket really make sense?

Ultimately, not much is known about the original Akademia school founded by Plato in Greece, besides its affinity for dialectic models of debate. And, on that note, it is hard to find passionate “debate” in ANY type of higher education facility these days – whether they be “academies” or “universities” or any other. In other words, it would seem that universitas AND akademia have both lost quite a bit of their relevance.

For this reason, all we can really do is reaffirm what is commonly believed in modern academic circles regarding the difference between “universities” or “colleges” and so forth, rather than lingering on murky historical context; language is constantly evolving.

Types Of Institutions: Commonly Held Notions

Below, you will find a detailed list of commonly recognized types of higher education facilities. Keep in mind this is biased toward the English language, so it mostly applies to the USA, Canada, UK, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, India, and other countries influenced by the American or British systems of higher education.

  • See also: Is Academic Discourse Dead? How Atheism, Global Warming, & Profit Motives Took Over American Colleges

University – A title widely considered to be reserved for the largest and most established of institutions, universities often encompass multiple “colleges” underneath them (or “faculties” in countries more influenced by non-American grammar).

Latin universitas – “the whole, entire, corporation, society”

  • maintain undergraduate and (post) graduate programs
  • often focus on progressive “research” – especially scientific research
  • often receive government grants in order to perform commissioned research work
  • in Europe, many universities sign and support the Magna Charta Universitatum
  • focus heavily on “academic” disciplines rather than vocational subjects
  • considered to be the successors of Studium generale and Medieval universities
  • full-time lecturers/professors usually required to have a PhD degree
  • often maintain sizable endowment funds (esp. in North America)
  • usually maintain various “colleges” or “faculties” focused on distinct fields
  • campuses often expected to have sizable library archives, among other facilities

Editor’s Note: for CollegeTimes purposes, we aim to standardize the term “university” by using the criteria above in our student reviews database.

College – A title often used in casual reference to ANY higher education institution, regardless of its reputation or subject matter. In Commonwealth countries, “colleges” are often high schools or secondary schools, whereas in the United States, the official term is usually referring to a constituent part of a greater university (for example, a collegiate university). Oxford and Cambridge popularized the term in the 1560s.

Latin collegium – “community, society, guild”

  • in casual use, often refers to ANY type of post-secondary undergraduate program
  • in official use, usually refers to a constituent part of a greater university (these constituent parts are also often called “schools” i.e. College/School Of Humanities)
  • for “4-year” colleges, i.e. Occidental College, usually represents an independent institution focused primarily on undergraduate studies with a strong focus on liberal arts (award Bachelor degrees to their successful program graduates)
  • there are also “2-year colleges” a.k.a. community colleges or junior colleges that usually award Associate degrees, certificates, or diplomas to their graduates (outside of the United States, comparable institutions are often called “technical” colleges – in any case, most “2-year colleges” around the world focus on vocational/trade skills)
  • university colleges” are more rare, usually a satellite or remote “college” campus from a parent university, or a campus specializing in non-traditional learning techniques
  • some local governments restrict usage of terms like “university” or “college”

Editor’s Note: for CollegeTimes purposes, we aim to standardize the term “college” by using it exclusively in reference to 4-year institutions with a broad learning base, usually including liberal arts studies. Alternatively, we may use the term “college” for campuses that are underneath a parent university. At no time will our database use the term “college” to refer to a vocationally focused or less than 4 year institution; the only exception being “community colleges” in the United States, because of their increasingly broad focus on various non-vocational fields in service to their local “community.”

Institute – A title that refers to a narrowly focused community or society, usually sharing a common goal or focus in regard to science, education, or social matters. The term’s level of prestige varies greatly between countries; in the United Kingdom for example, it is protected and reserved for organizations that perform the highest level of research. However, in America, the term is regularly used by some of the least reputable schools.

Latin institutum – “something setup, designed, standing”

  • usually focus on a specific field of study, i.e. Fashion Institute or Psychology Institute
  • often provide vocational training for less than 4 years, i.e. ITT Technical Institute (esp. in the United States; other countries usually have “technical colleges”)
  • in rarer cases, esp. in the United Kingdom, represent high level research i.e. MIT
  • in Spain, refers to secondary schools; in Korea/Japan used by many private schools

Editor’s Note: for CollegeTimes purposes, we aim to standardize the term “institute” by using it exclusively in reference to field-focused institutions, especially in regard to vocational training or specific niches, i.e. health, nursing, or technology. Because of our bias toward American trends, we will not use “institute” in reference to any well-established university. Unfortunately, this term has started to degrade in prestige in recent years, and our database aims to reflect that trend.

Academy – A title similar to “institute” in that it often refers to a narrowly focused school or organization, or in many cases, a primary or secondary school that is more prestigious than other local schools due to private funding or government sponsorship.

Greek akademia – location in Greece where Plato taught philosophy

  • academia still often refers to the greater higher education community, but “academy” has lost much of its prestige in part because of its association with specialized primary or secondary schools (esp. in the United States, United Kingdom, etc)
  • has lost additional association with education due to being used for societies or clubs of distinguished scholars, artists, scientists, etc. that aim to promote and maintain standards in a particular field i.e. the Hollywood Oscars
  • also used heavily in association with military/police oriented training institutions

Editor’s Note: for CollegeTimes purposes, we aim to use the term “academy” sparingly, usually in reference to military/police/maritime training schools.

School – A title that is arguably the broadest term available when referring to ANY educational facility – whether primary, secondary, post-secondary, or niche oriented. Based on the Greek/Roman belief that any free time should be used for discussion in order to further learning, which later referenced places of lecture.

Greek skhole – “leisure, idleness, discussion”

  • most commonly refers to any primary (elementary) level of institution
  • also can be used interchangeably with “college” to refer to a constituent part of a parent university, i.e. School of Law or School of Psychology (esp. in the United States)
  • “school” seems to hold more prestige than “college” in many higher education circles, especially in reference to faculties of Law, Medicine, or Business

Editor’s Note: for CollegeTimes purposes, we aim to standardize the term “school” by using it exclusively in reference to primary (elementary) schools or secondary schools (a.k.a. middle schools, junior high schools, or high schools). Especially in the United States, “school” is a popular term in reference to colleges of Law, Medicine, or Business. We feel this is rather inaccurate – that “college” is more appropriate; however, the terminology is so widespread that we may use titles like “Law School” interchangeably with “Law College” or “College of Law” in our database.

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5 thoughts on "Institutions: University vs. College vs. Institute vs. Academy vs. School: What’s The Actual Difference?"

  1. Rosellar Sharper says:

    Thank you I agree with what was stated in this post.

  2. David Walters says:

    At least you helped answer the question, College Times. These other ‘comments’ leave ‘a little’ to a ‘whole helluva lot’ t0 be desired.

    Regardless, thank you for trying to ‘enlighten’ me & others in our search for truthful facts & information!

  3. MacUser says:

    Even more confusing is the title “faculty” in US vs Europe and “College” in US vs Europe. The Title ‘Faculty’ is usually referring to a constituent part of a greater university and an Decan leading every Faculty. Together they are the board of the University.
    A College or Latin ‘Collegium’ represents the staff of every faculty and the entire University. They are colleagues..!
    So a totally confusing use of words in Academia.
    Quiet the opposite in US then in Europe. Central Europe different to UK etc.

    But we do not know what is actually right or wrong use of Titles. A Dentist ist today known as a Doctor (MedDent) and did study on University.
    Less then 100 years ago he was a common BlackSmith in the Village and some of them took a one day course learning about using the Tools of the Blacksmith in the Mouth of Peoples. Extending later to two days and a week course and somebody did print a peace of paper and the Blacksmith did travel back to the Village happy and did get some knowledge. With all of this, we are over 7 billion people anyway. Every doctor and every academic title is evolved from a simple 1-2 days course and perhaps something kind written on a sheet of paper – to all the enormous Titles we give each other in huge buildings, and all the examinations and papers. Only to give us the impression, we are something… Something more… But a Dentist is perhaps still a BlackSmith, just with a different Sheet of paper we did give him or her…

  4. I do not know where you went to svhool but it was not here in the States. Next write your own comment and let us (US) do our own thinking. If you don’t stand with us (US) then you are agin us. For that definition see Thomas Jefferson Clinton, President of the United States of America, Amen and Amen, Hallajuia sang the Angelic Angels. Better known as the BluecAngels you dorks. Get real and getta life.

    1. Alice says:

      What are you even saying? lol

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