More Confusing Terms for the Glossary: University, Associate’s Degree

by Jessica Stahl - Posts (449). Posted Friday, March 18th, 2011 at 3:39 pm

dictionary and thesaurusLast week we started a glossary of confusing terms you might encounter when applying to U.S. colleges. We defined the word “college,” which has a very different meaning in the U.S. than in most other English-speaking countries, as well as the words “community college,” “bachelor’s degree,” and more.

» Visit the Glossary

We also asked for your feedback to suggest other terms we should define, and here are two of the words you asked for. You can suggest more words to add using the Glossary Suggestion Form at the bottom of this page or by leaving a comment:

1) University

One of you asked for more clarification about the difference between a college and a university. Unfortunately, the difference is not well-defined, and often the same schools could just as easily be called a college as a university.

University of Virginia

In the United States, college and university refer to basically the same thing – a degree-granting institute of higher education.

In general, a college is undergraduate-focused, while a university also includes graduate-level studies (master’s and PhD programs) and research components (ie: Harvard College is the undergraduate component of Harvard University).

But in everyday speech, you’ll hear Americans use the word “college” to refer to the level of education after high school. If you’re coming to the U.S. for higher education, you can look at schools that are called colleges or universities.

You might also hear the word “college” used to describe academic subdivisions within a university (the Washington College of Law is the law school of American University). And the word college is also used in the term “community college,” which is a school that offers two-year degrees as opposed to four-year degrees.

2) Associate’s Degree

A two-year undergraduate degree, typically awarded by community colleges and junior colleges. Some associate’s degrees are typically used as transfer degrees, meaning that after completing the two-year degree, the student would transfer their credits towards a four-year bachelor’s degree. Other associate’s degrees are career-oriented and “terminal,” meaning they train a student to pursue a certain career.

That’s the technical definition, but the person who asked us to define associate’s degree also wanted to know what it means socially to get an associate’s degree before, or rather than, a bachelor’s degree. That’s a little more complicated.

Creative commons photo by Flickr user ralphandjenny

An associate’s degree is a two-year degree, so it takes less time than a bachelor’s degree to attain and is therefore lower on the scale of academic achievement. However, that doesn’t mean there’s any sort of stigma associated with it.

People get associate’s degrees for a lot of different reasons. They may be trying to save money (community colleges are typically much cheaper than four-year colleges), or they may not have had the grades in high school to get into the college they wanted. They may have other priorities that make a four-year degree too much of a commitment (many people will study for associate’s degrees after working for a few years after high school), or the degree may be what’s required to pursue a particular career.

So, there you go. Keep suggesting words for us to define, and visit the glossary to see what’s been submitted so far.

P.S. – EducationUSA reminded me that they have a glossary of terms as well. It’s different than ours, so worth checking out.

What other words do you want us to define? Use the Glossary Suggestion Form below or leave your suggestions in the comments.

3 Responses to “More Confusing Terms for the Glossary: University, Associate’s Degree”

  1. Jennifer Salisbury says:

    Jessica,

    I had no idea there was a difference in the terms “college” and “university” until I lived in Canada for a while. I got very strange looks when I would use the words interchangeably, and realized quickly they had different meanings. People, especially in Canada, were very confused when I told them I went to a military academy. They asked me “is that a college, or a university?” I still had to ask myself what the difference was. I think this is simply a nuance in terms, nothing more. Because America has a large bank of learning institutions is one major reason the lines get blurred so easily; in Canada there are not as many educational sites, which is why the difference is important. Either way, as long as people are learning I don’t really care what they call it.

    • Jessica Stahl says:

      According to Wikipedia (so ascribe to it what authority you will), the American usage came about because when the first institutions of higher education were created here by British settlers, they didn’t feel comparable to universities like Oxford and Cambridge back in England. So they called them colleges to put them on the level of the many small colleges that make up each of those universities. Interesting thought.

      I also lived in Canada for a bit, by the way :)

  2. [...] addressed the status implications of attending community college when we defined "associate's degree" for our [...]

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Glossary of Confusing Words

Find definitions of confusing words and terms about studying in the U.S. in our Glossary of Confusing Words.

All the words were submitted by YOU, so visit the glossary to see the words that have been defined already and to suggest your own.