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Spanish has two generic words for school: escuela and colegio. I have heard different explanations for what phases of schooling each word refers to. For example, I've been told that colegio refers only to high school and also that it can describe any school all that way down to kindergarten or first grade.

Other school words are more obvious: primaria means primary school, secundaria means secondary school, universidad means university. But for escuela and colegio, what grade or age range do they most commonly refer to? Are there any major regional differences from the norm?

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A side note: you have not accepted any of the answers you got on this site. People might stop answering them if they feel their effort is not appreciated. – Diego Mijelshon Nov 21 '11 at 21:10
@DiegoMijelshon: Thanks for the note. I try not to accept answers during the private beta to give others a chance once it's opened up to everyone. I'll go through and accept answers soon. – jrdioko Nov 21 '11 at 21:41
I think several of the English words for schools and colleges also very their meanings quite a bit by region. – hippietrail Nov 22 '11 at 9:55
NB. Se puede encontrar tambien la abreviacion 'cole' cuando se dice de colegios. – Alexey Krasheninnikov Nov 28 '11 at 10:39
Don't forget facultad, as in the School of Business, Art, Sciences, etc. – Adam Feb 14 '13 at 23:38
up vote 6 down vote accepted

Every country has a different usage, and sometimes you can't even trust those conventions.

In Argentina, escuela usually means primary school, and colegio usually means secondary school, in both cases assuming no additional context. But primary school students can refer to their school as colegio too, and many secondary schools have escuela in their names.

In other words, the only way to be sure is to be specific.

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+1 I'd say that in Argentina (and anywhere) the difference is quite vague. – leonbloy Feb 8 '13 at 14:05

En Colombia, el término "escuela" (referido al sitio en donde se instruye a los niños) se utiliza sobretodo para las instituciones públicas de educación primaria, aunque (dependiendo del contexto) puede usarse "escuela" también para una institución privada de educación primaria. El término "colegio" se utiliza para todas las instituciones, indistintamente de su caracter público o privado, de educación primaria y secundaria.

Aunque usualmente se usan "escuela" y "colegio" para instituciones de educación primaria o secundaria, existen universidades que en su nombre utilizan las palabras "escuela" o "colegio", por ejemplo, "Escuela Colombiana de Ingeniería", "Colegio Mayor de Nuestra Señora del Rosario".

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As far as I have seen it used in Spain:

  • escuela — school, as generic term to describe any type of teaching institution (even stuff like eg. cooking courses);
  • colegio — primary & secondary school;
  • instituto — prep-school;
  • [escuela|colegio|instituto] superior — college;
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In Guatemala, for some reason, the distinction is whether it's public or private education:

  • Escuela is a public school.
  • Colegio is a private school.
  • Universidad is a university, regardless of funding source.

In both cases, it could refer to elementary or high-school level. We don't really have the concept of a "middle school", except in American-style schools.

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In Mexican Spanish, the word "escuela" is a generic term for school, usually grade school level, "colegio" means college, high school is called "escuela secundaria", and a university is called "universidad". We also have "colegio tecnico" = Technical College, as of a college that teaches a special trade without taking all the extras needed for a higher degree.

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