For universities with residential colleges, the principal difference between these and non-collegiate halls of residence (or dormitories) is that "colleges are societies (Latin collegia), not buildings". This is expressed in different ways in different universities; commonly students are members of a college, not residents of a college, and remain members whether they are living in the college or not, but this is not universal and the distinction may be drawn in other ways (see, e.g., the University of Otago below). Residential colleges also commonly have members drawn from the university's academic staff in order to form a whole academic community. Students in residential colleges are often organised into a junior common room, with academic staff forming a senior common room.
The development of the collegiate university in western Europe followed shortly after the development of the medieval university itself. The first college to be established was the Collège des Dix-Huit at the University of Paris, founded in 1180 by John of London shortly after he had returned from Jerusalem. This has led to the suggestion that the college was inspired by madrasas he saw on his travels, although this has been disputed, particularly as, unlike madrasas, the early Paris colleges did not teach. Other colleges appeared in Paris shortly after this, including the College of St Thomas du Louvre (1186) and the College of the Good Children of St Honore (1208-9) – although these may both have had more of the character of grammar schools than colleges of the university – various monastic colleges starting with the Dominicans in 1217, and the College of Sorbonne for non-monastic theology students in 1257. From Paris, the idea spread to Oxford, where William of Durham, who had been a Regent Master of Theology at Paris, left a legacy to found University College, Oxford in 1249. Although this is taken as the foundation date of University College, it was not until after 1280 that the college actually began operating. At around the same time Balliol College was founded by John de Balliol via a grant of land in 1263 as a penance imposed by the Bishop of Durham, and Merton College was founded with an endowment by Walter de Merton in 1264.
These original Oxford colleges were "merely endowed boardinghouses for impoverished scholars", and were limited to those who had already received their Bachelor of Arts degree and were reading for higher degrees (usually theology). It was not until 1305 that teaching started in the College of Navarre in Paris, an innovation that reached Oxford in 1379 with the foundation of New College – also the first college there to take undergraduate students. In Bologna and other Italian universities, the colleges, as Rashdall put it, "remained to the last (what all Colleges were originally intended to be) eleemosynary institutions for the help of poor students, boarding-houses and not places of education" and never acquired the same importance as the colleges of Oxford or Paris.
Colleges evolved in different directions in different places, but many European universities lost their colleges in the early 18th century. At the University of Coimbra, for example, many colleges were established in the 16th century, although these were limited to the study of theology with the other faculties remaining non-collegiate. These colleges, joined by others in the 17th and 18th centuries, persisted until 1834, when they (along with the religious orders that ran then) were suppressed following the Portuguese civil war. The colleges of Paris were closed along with the university itself and the rest of the French universities after the French Revolution, as were the colleges of the University of Salamanca.
While the continental universities retained control over their colleges, in England it was the colleges that came to dominate the universities. The Hebdomadal Board was established by William Laud at Oxford in 1631 with the intent of diluting the influence of Congregation (the assembly of regent masters) and Convocation (the assembly of all graduates). This led to criticism in the 19th century, with William Hamilton alleging that the colleges had unlawfully usurped the functions of the universities as the tutors had taken over the teaching from the professors. Royal Commissions in the 1850s led to Acts of Parliament in 1854 (for Oxford) and 1856 (for Cambridge) that, among other measures, limited the power of the colleges.