The world college is derived from the Latin collegium and is used to describe an institution of higher learning. In its broadest sense, college can be used to describe any group of colleagues as in the Electoral College which is a group of colleagues from government that elect the U.S. President every four years. Originally college meant a group of people all living together under the same set of rules. Some colleges even call the members of their institution fellows. The exact use of the term varies across English-speaking countries.
In the United States, unlike Great Britain, college is used almost exclusively to refer to an undergraduate university or sometimes to a professional or technical training school. So college can refer to either a self-contained school with no graduate programs or to the undergraduate section of a university that does offer graduate degrees.
College and university are used almost interchangeably in America but technically the difference is that university is the term used to describe higher education institutions offering a wide range of degrees including graduate degrees whereas the term college typically refers to smaller schools that offer only bachelor’s degrees or associate degrees. So for example the state of Indiana has Indiana University which is a large well-known educational institution offering a wide range of undergraduate degrees in addition to offering a number of graduate programs. As contrasted with Wabash College which is a smaller, lesser-known school which offers only undergraduate degrees.
There are several notable exceptions to this rule however. Several well-known and respected American universities make use of the word college. Some examples include the College of William & Mary, Dartmouth College, and Boston College. These institutions may have retained the term college for tradition or historical reasons or it may be to emphasize their focus on undergraduate programs. But regardless of the reason for using the term college in their names, all of these institutions offer graduate programs. In the case of Boston College, they couldn’t change their name to Boston University as that name is already being used by a university of the same name. There are approximately 2,500 four-year colleges and universities in America today.
The use of the term college can also vary from state to state. Georgia, for example, changed the names of all of its four-year colleges to universities and changed its vocational schools to vocational colleges. Other states have changed the names of specific colleges but not across the board as Georgia did.
Finally, while the terms college and university dominate the names of institutions offering undergraduate degrees, there are a few schools that use other terms such as academy in the case of the U.S. Naval Academy and the U.S. Military Academy, institute as in the Rochester Institute of Technology, union as in Cooper Union, and simply school as in the Juilliard School.