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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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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 2 down vote accepted

I am adding this summary following what was discussed in Juntemos en respuestas wiki las respuestas cortas específicas de regiones / Let's use community wiki to summarize set of short region specific answers. Feel free to edit to add the term used in your country or region.


  • escuela: primary school
  • colegio: secondary school


  • escuela (1): public primary school (1° básico to 8° básico).
  • escuela (2): higher education institute, part of a university or college (ex.: Escuela de Arquitectura de la Universidad X).
  • liceo: public secondary school (I medio to IV medio).
  • colegio (1): private school, primary and secondary (1° básico to IV medio).
  • colegio (2): generic school ("Se acabaron las vacaciones, de vuelta al colegio").

Sometimes it used to make an economic or social distinction: "escuela" and "liceo" are free, "colegio" is paid.


  • escuela: primary school, generally a public one
  • colegio: all institutions, both primary and secondary Both words are also used for universities.


  • escuela: school
  • colegio: primary and secondary school
  • instituto: prep-school All of them + superior: college


  • escuela: public school
  • colegio: private school Both words could also refer to elementary or high-school level.


  • escuela: school, usually grade school level
  • colegio: college
  • escuela secundaria: high school
  • universidad: university

Colegio técnico refers to a college that teaches a special trade without taking all the extras needed for a higher degree.

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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 sobre todo 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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In proper Spanish, I have definitions of schools by level and age-range.

  • Escuela means "school", age-range doesn't matter.
  • Escuela primaria means "primary school". Usually, it ranges from Kindergarten to 5th grade.
  • Escuela intermedia means "middle school".
  • Escuela secundaria and liceo both mean "high school".
  • Colegio refers to "college". It also means "university". This identifies an institution of higher-level education.
  • Universidad is a synonym to colegio.

P.S. - I know this stuff because I'm Puerto Rican.

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DRAE: colegio 1. m. Establecimiento de enseñanza para niños y jóvenes. Understand that PR is not the only place that speaks Spanish and usage varies on these things quite substantially. – guifa Jun 19 at 22:39
He is Puerto Rican but I'm Colombian and here Colegio IS High School. – DGaleano Jun 19 at 23:47
In Bolivia: "Escuela" is for elementary up to grade 5, "colegio" from grade 6 to grade 12, there is no "escuela intermedia", "Universidad" for university. There is no college as it is the US/Canada. Trades are called "instituto" or "tecnológico". I'm Bolivian ;). pd: I'm surprised that in Canada they even call school to university or college. – Delonix R. Jun 30 at 16:12

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