College vs. University – What are the real differences?

There is a commonly held perception that a university education is the be-all and end-all of tertiary education. Get a university degree and you are set, we tend to think. But then it happens that university graduates sometimes struggle to find work, while someone with a technical diploma from a college walks into a high-paying job on the first day.


So how does a college education really compare to a university education, and what are the differences that really set the two apart?

You can scroll down for a quick summary if you are in a hurry, but to really understand, you have to read the sections below.

Level of education

Both colleges and universities are tertiary educational institutions. This means that they offer post-high school education and training.

The biggest difference, however, is in the level of education they offer. Colleges will usually go up to NQF level 6, which is a certificate or diploma. Universities usually offer qualifications from NQF level 7 to 10, which starts with a bachelor’s degree and ends with a doctorate.

There are, however, colleges that offer bachelor’s degree programmes, just as there are universities that offer diplomas and certificate programmes.


Universities are accredited by the Department of Education to offer degree programmes. Colleges, on the other hand, have to be registered with the Department of Education and must attain separate accreditation for their certificate or diploma courses.

The accreditation for college courses usually comes from SETAs (Sector Education and Training Authorities) that regulate qualifications related to specific professions or industries. This also means that the qualifications that you earn from a college are industry-related qualifications, while university courses will lead to academic qualifications.


A university education will give you a big advantage in the labour market. Yet, while a degree will give you good foundational credentials, you will often need additional specialist training, or an extra vocational qualification, if you want to secure certain positions.

If you want a job in a specific industry, then a National Qualification or accredited course from a college will most likely give you the exact qualification you need. It will also equip you with a list of skills that are directly related to your chosen career path.

The fact stands, however, that in a lot of cases, university graduates will earn a higher salary than college graduates. But it might take a university graduate a long time to work himself/herself up professionally, while many college graduates easily enter and succeed in the job market with technical qualifications. And don’t forget: there are also plenty of high-paying careers for which you don’t need a degree.


Most university courses are academic, especially general BA or BCom degrees. Universities are generally more focused on academic training, rather than on vocational training.

Colleges, on the other hand, aim to give students vocational training and skills development that relates directly to certain professions. Even though these qualifications are generally not as highly valued as a degree, in certain professions the vocational qualification will give you an advantage above a university graduate.

There is a compromise between colleges and universities in this regard. Technical universities, formerly known as ‘Technikons’, focus on providing vocational degree programmes.


Undergraduate university degrees usually require at least 3 years of full-time study. To get your degree, you have to have the time and money set aside to do it. Postgraduate degrees or diplomas often take an additional year.

Colleges allow you to study shorter programmes such as Certificates and Short Courses that you can complete in under 12 months. Colleges also offer longer programmes that you can do in separate levels, like the N1 to N3 Engineering Courses.


Universities usually have very strict semesters, timetables, and class times. You have to fit your plans around these institutional schedules.

Though there are many campus-based colleges using the same model, there are also numerous colleges in South Africa that offer part-time, distance learning, or flexible education. This means that you can study from home via correspondence, and set your own schedule. This also allows you to keep a full-time job while studying.

There are a few distance learning universities too. However, few of them offer the same level of flexibility that their college counterparts do.


Universities often have very strict registration periods, which usually close around September in the year preceding your proposed studies. You also have to wait a long time before you find out whether you have been accepted for your course of choice or not.

Many colleges are more flexible with registrations. This is especially true of distance learning colleges, where registrations are often open right through the year. This allows you to start your course whenever it suits you.


The biggest advantage that colleges have over universities is that they are considerably more affordable. While universities are very expensive, and often require you to pay a large fee upfront, colleges in South Africa aim to make education accessible and affordable to anyone who wants to study. This often includes allowing you to pay for your course in easy monthly instalments.

The differences between universities and colleges:


This table, as well as the sections preceding it, only gives a very general discussion of the differences between these two types of institutions. It should be remembered that there are exceptions to all of the specifications listed above.

The best way to know which institution is best for you is firstly to consider your needs, your future plans, and the time and money you have available. Once you have done that, look at specific educational institutions – both universities and colleges – and pick the one that is most closely aligned with your own needs and preferences.

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2 Responses

  1. nelly bilq says:

    Hey,how long does it take to upgrade a diploma to a degree at a universisity?

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