in / at university


I have learned these expressions, in middle school, in high school, and at university.


In my sense, university is a bigger one so I think I also can say in university for the same meaning.


What do you native English speakers think? Thank you so much as usual and have a good day.

edited Jan 22 '13 at 01:42 Hans Contributor

2 answers


When my son was in college, I told the insurance company that he had the car with him at college. 


In and at still have two different meanings.  I believe you are more likely to hear at with college or university because people leave home to go there.  When we say someone is in middle school or in college, it is the same as saying he is in the seventh grade or in graduate school.  It isn't about the physical location.  If you are just talking about the location of the person, you might say that Tolley is at the high school, teaching his class. 

link edited Jan 22 '13 at 03:25 Patty T Grammarly Fellow

And happy I am not IN high school. . .

TolleyJan 22 '13 at 03:42

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So interesting!  I hadn't realized how much Canadian English mimicks our Brit forebears in this particular regard. In Canada, we would never, ever say in college unless we were referring to a substandard, regionally-based (read backwoods) academic institution, far below the prestige of a university. Usually, colleges don't have the academic wherewithal to confer degrees that mean very much.  Students might attend there for a year or two, then transfer to a real university to finish their studies and gain a real degree.    (Hadn't realized how snotty that sounds until I compared the Canadian college/university distinction to the American terminology....)


Within a university, college has a completely different meaning; related academic disciplines are grouped into colleges, for example The College of Arts and Sciences, or the the College of Engineering,  or the College of Dentistry (these are often referred to, instead of the College of..., as The Faculty of... which refers to the professors, not the students), subdivisions of X University.


In this particularly Brit-centric linguistic universe, Patty's distinction between in and at does not cut it at all.  A student studies at X university, or at university, period.  Prior to that, students are in primary school, in elementary/middle school, in high school but most definitely (studying) at university.  (We do say He's in grad(uate) school, however.)  There are other expressions we often use, too.  She's doing a BA at X UniversityHe's an undergrad student, etc.   But as you can see, as soon as there is an extension, with the exception of in grad school, it is always at university or at X university.


As for Patty's US-centric distinction between being at college or in college, I would transpose that into my universe as at university or at the university.  A student studies at university or at X University (when there is only one, or both you and I know which university I'm referring to); a teacher/instructor teaches at X university or at the university (same distinction as for students).   All other non-teaching staff work at/for X University or at/for the university (same distinction).


When you want to locate a student who is on the university premises, you would say She's at school, or She's at classes;  for a professor/instructor, He's at work or He's teaching; for all non-academic staff, She's at work.


I may well have missed or botched something in the above summary, but absent that, from what I have been able to glean, the patterns I have outlined apply to all countries that belong(ed) to the British Commonwealth.  America is a bit of an outlier in this regard, and I certainly don't mean to imply that that's a bad thing.   It is good for us commonwealthers to realize that when an American says he is in college, it is not something that they should be embarrassed about.  Likewise, when we say that we're at university, please don't roll your eyes, ok?  Fair deal?

link edited Jan 22 '13 at 16:15 Shawn Mooney Expert

Fair deal, Shawn. My former significant other was Canadian. He taught me the difference between college and university in Canada and elsewhere. When I was in college, many moons ago, all of the colleges in our state system changed their names from a college to a university. I never paid attention to the reason. Though I graduated from a university, I still say I went to college. Sometimes I do say university if I know the person is Canadian or English, so that they know what type of school I mean.

Patty TJan 22 '13 at 17:28

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