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Varsity vs. University: What's the Difference?

Edited by Aimie Carlson || By Janet White || Updated on October 9, 2023
Varsity typically refers to a school's primary athletic team, while a university is an institution of higher education.

Key Differences

Varsity, in the context of schools and colleges, typically refers to the primary team representing an educational institution in sports or competitions. University, on the other hand, is a term used to describe an educational institution that provides undergraduate and postgraduate degrees in various disciplines.
Varsity thus tends to be a subset of the larger university community, focused on sports and competitions. University encompasses a broader academic environment, often housing multiple colleges or departments offering specialized courses. While a student can be part of a varsity team at a university, not all students at the university are necessarily affiliated with the varsity.
Additionally, the word "varsity" can sometimes be used colloquially to represent elite or top-tier status in non-athletic contexts within a university. Meanwhile, university retains its academic and institutional connotation.

Comparison Chart


A school's primary athletic team.
An institution of higher education.


Athletics and competitions.
Academic studies and research.


Subset of university community.
Comprehensive institution with multiple colleges.

Colloquial Usage

Can signify top-tier status in various contexts.
Refers to academic institution consistently.

Size & Structure

Usually consists of selected students.
Includes faculties, departments, and students.

Varsity and University Definitions


A school's primary athletic team.
The varsity basketball team has a game tonight.


A large and diverse institution with broad curriculum.
The university has faculties ranging from arts to engineering.


Representing the highest level of a sport in a school or college.
She was a varsity swimmer in her sophomore year.


A body of faculty and students pursuing academic studies.
The university has a diverse population from all over the world.


A type of jacket, typically lettered, indicating participation in a school sport.
He wore his varsity jacket with pride.


A school offering courses leading to a degree.
The university offers both undergraduate and postgraduate programs.


The principal team representing a university, college, or school in sports, games, or other competitions.


An institution for higher learning with teaching and research facilities typically including a graduate school and professional schools that award master's degrees and doctorates and an undergraduate division that awards bachelor's degrees.


Chiefly British A university.


The buildings and grounds of such an institution.




The body of students and faculty of such an institution.


The principal sports team representing an institution (usually a high school, college, or university.)


Institution of higher education (typically accepting students from the age of about 17 or 18, depending on country, but in some exceptional cases able to take younger students) where subjects are studied and researched in depth and degrees are offered.
The only reason why I haven't gone to university is because I can't afford it.


Colloquial contraction of University.


The universe; the whole.


The team with the best players of a school or club, being the main representative of the organization in competitive play between schools or organizations. In schools, contrasted with junior varsity. Also used attributively, as, the varsity football team.


An association, society, guild, or corporation, esp. one capable of having and acquiring property.
The universities, or corporate bodies, at Rome were very numerous. There were corporations of bakers, farmers of the revenue, scribes, and others.


A British abbreviation of `university'; usually refers to Oxford University or Cambridge University


An institution organized and incorporated for the purpose of imparting instruction, examining students, and otherwise promoting education in the higher branches of literature, science, art, etc., empowered to confer degrees in the several arts and faculties, as in theology, law, medicine, music, etc. A university may exist without having any college connected with it, or it may consist of but one college, or it may comprise an assemblage of colleges established in any place, with professors for instructing students in the sciences and other branches of learning. In modern usage, a university is expected to have both an undergraduate division, granting bachelor's degrees, and a graduate division, granting master's or doctoral degrees, but there are some exceptions. In addition, a modern university typically also supports research by its faculty
The present universities of Europe were, originally, the greater part of them, ecclesiastical corporations, instituted for the education of churchmen . . . What was taught in the greater part of those universities was suitable to the end of their institutions, either theology or something that was merely preparatory to theology.


A team representing a college or university


The body of faculty and students at a university


Indicating a main line or principal activity in a business or domain.
The software was their varsity product.


Establishment where a seat of higher learning is housed, including administrative and living quarters as well as facilities for research and teaching


Used to describe something of an elite or first-string nature.
The varsity debate team won the championship.


A large and diverse institution of higher learning created to educate for life and for a profession and to grant degrees


An institution of higher learning providing facilities for teaching and research.
She got her PhD from a prestigious university.


A complex or institution having authority over multiple related departments or schools.
The university oversees several colleges and research centers.


What's the main difference between a college and a university?

A university often houses multiple colleges or departments, offering a broader range of studies.

Can one attend a university and not be involved in any varsity activity?

Absolutely, many students focus solely on academics or other extracurriculars.

What does Varsity primarily refer to?

Varsity primarily refers to a school's primary athletic team.

Does every student in a university belong to varsity?

No, only selected students typically form the varsity teams in a university.

Can varsity refer to something other than sports?

Yes, colloquially, varsity can signify elite or top-tier status in various contexts.

Can a university exist without any varsity teams?

Yes, a university's primary focus is on education, and while many have sports teams, it's not a requirement.

Can a university have multiple varsity teams?

Yes, a university can have multiple varsity teams for various sports.

Can there be a "varsity" of academics within a university?

Not traditionally, but "varsity" can colloquially signify elite status in various contexts, potentially including academics.

Does every university award degrees?

Typically, yes. Universities offer courses leading to various degrees.

Is a varsity jacket an official representation of a university?

It represents participation in a varsity sport at a school or college, which could be part of a university.

Can "university" refer to a single building?

No, a university is an institution, often spread across multiple buildings or campuses.

What's the significance of the term "varsity" in a business context?

Colloquially, it can indicate a main line or principal activity of a business.

Do all universities have varsity teams?

No, while many do, not all universities will have varsity sports teams.

What's the connection between varsity and university?

Varsity teams often represent a school, college, or university in sports or competitions.

Can a university be known primarily for its varsity achievements?

While universities are academic institutions, some can be notably recognized for their athletic achievements.

Is varsity exclusive to American institutions?

While the term is commonly used in American English, it's understood and used in other English-speaking regions too.

Are universities public or private institutions?

They can be either. Universities can be state-funded (public) or privately funded.

Can the word "varsity" be used in a casual conversation to denote expertise?

Yes, it can colloquially denote top-tier or elite status in various contexts.

Are universities restricted to any specific region or country?

No, universities exist worldwide, though their structures and offerings might differ by country.

How does the academic focus of a university differ from the athletic focus of varsity?

While universities provide academic education and research opportunities, varsity emphasizes sports and competitions.
About Author
Written by
Janet White
Janet White has been an esteemed writer and blogger for Difference Wiki. Holding a Master's degree in Science and Medical Journalism from the prestigious Boston University, she has consistently demonstrated her expertise and passion for her field. When she's not immersed in her work, Janet relishes her time exercising, delving into a good book, and cherishing moments with friends and family.
Edited by
Aimie Carlson
Aimie Carlson, holding a master's degree in English literature, is a fervent English language enthusiast. She lends her writing talents to Difference Wiki, a prominent website that specializes in comparisons, offering readers insightful analyses that both captivate and inform.

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