What is a university? In its strict sense, a medieval or early modern university was a guild of teachers, divided into four faculties: liberal arts, law, medicine and theology. A university had the exclusive right to grant degrees – bachelor, master, licenciate, doctor – of which the higher degrees represented admission into the guild of teachers. For the great universities, the studia generalia, a graduate of one could teach in any of the others.
A college was smaller, an association of students rather than of masters. It could be a simple boarding house for university students, a free-standing academy, or (as in the English universities) a unit within a university where much of the teaching was done. Colleges seldom taught more than the liberal arts, the foundational area of study, and theology. But in practice the definitions could be blurry. Universities did not necessarily have all the required faculties, and colleges might receive permission to grant degrees, making them hard to distinguish from universities.
The history of higher learning in the colonial Americas is one of apparent contrasts and underlying unity. At first glance, it is the differences that stand out: the Spanish founded dozens of universities from New Spain to the Río de la Plata, while the British colonies had only a handful of colleges, and in colonial Brazil and New France most higher education was in seminaries belonging to religious orders. The Anglo-American colleges started small, usually without courses in law or medicine, and grew gradually; many today are private colleges or universities, named after early donors. Many colonial Spanish schools were founded as full-fledged universities, are named for their cities and their patron saints, and today are large public institutions.
At the same time, all the American universities and colleges drew on a shared liberal arts curriculum inherited from the Middle Ages; most were public and ecclesiastical institutions that also relied on local initiative and support; in most, curricula gradually modernized, following Enlightenment ideas of natural and useful education. From a broad perspective, from Canada to Chile, the differences are less significant than the similarities.