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?

  • 3
    I think several of the English words for schools and colleges also very their meanings quite a bit by region. Commented Nov 22, 2011 at 9:55
  • NB. Se puede encontrar tambien la abreviacion 'cole' cuando se dice de colegios. Commented Nov 28, 2011 at 10:39
  • Don't forget facultad, as in the School of Business, Art, Sciences, etc.
    – Adam
    Commented Feb 14, 2013 at 23:38

8 Answers 8


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.

Country Usage
Argentina escuela: primary school
colegio: secondary school
Chile 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.
Colombia escuela: primary school, generally a public one
colegio: all institutions, both primary and secondary

Both words are also used for some universities names.

An university covers the "college" time plus "university" time,
Cuba There is no difference between ir a la escuela and ir al colegio. Both refer to the same institution. Colegio es used way less frequently than escuela.
España escuela: school
colegio: primary and secondary school
instituto: prep-school

All of them + superior: college
Guatemala escuela: public school
colegio: private school

Both words could also refer to elementary or high-school level.
Mexico escuela: school, usually grade school level (but in informal speech can be used to refer to any educational setting)
colegio: college (this could be ambiguous -- safer choice is universidad)
escuela secundaria: high school
universidad or uni for short: university
secundaria: corresponds to the US junior high or middle school
preparatoria, or prepa for short: corresponds to US "high school"
Colegio técnico: a college that teaches a special trade without taking all the extras needed for a higher degree.
  • 2
    Cuba: no hay diferencia. Ir a la escuela, ir al colegio. Se refiere a la misma institución. La palabra colegio se usa aunque en mucho menor medida que escuela.
    – Cobian
    Commented May 8, 2018 at 20:15
  • I completely disagree in the Spain part. Both "escuela" and "colegio" refer to the same thing: primary school and/or kindergarten. The next stage is "instituto". This is like this unless you're in a private school in which they have both toghether. So "escuela" and "colegio" would be valid from 3 to 11 years old (except the private schools having it joined, which are until 16). Standard ages are: kindergarten (3→5); primary school (5→11) and secondary school (instituto) (12→16).
    – FGSUZ
    Commented May 9, 2018 at 13:59
  • So the difference between "escuela" and "colegio" is just "none" in Spain. If you want more nuances, "escuela" sounds more childish, so it's more likely to be used at the beginning, and also by moms and all that. Most children like to use "colegio", as it sounds less "childish".
    – FGSUZ
    Commented May 9, 2018 at 14:00
  • @FGSUZ this is a wiki answer, feel free to edit to improve it!
    – fedorqui
    Commented May 9, 2018 at 14:28

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.


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 la Escuela Colombiana de Ingeniería o el Colegio Mayor de Nuestra Señora del Rosario.


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;

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.


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.


In Puerto Rico, we 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'm Puerto Rican.

  • 4
    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. Commented Jun 19, 2016 at 22:39
  • 1
    He is Puerto Rican but I'm Colombian and here Colegio IS High School.
    – DGaleano
    Commented Jun 19, 2016 at 23:47
  • 1
    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.
    Commented Jun 30, 2016 at 16:12

Durante la colonia española, siglos 17 al 19, la educación que ahora llamamos primaria y secundaria no existía y la enseñanza era de carácter privado y personalizado, y por lo tanto solo al alcance de personas con buen nivel económico.
Las instituciones educativas que inicialmente se fundaron en las colonias españolas en América fueron los "Colegios Mayores", que eran para formación universitaria de grados mayores (licenciatura y doctorado).
Cuando la educación empezó a masificarse la palabra "colegio" fue extendida para cubrir lo que ahora son los grados de primaria y secundaria.


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