There was a time when a guy would ask a girl out on a first date. He would pick her up at 7, she would be dressed up. You've seen the movies. Now, a first date is usually spent figuring out if it's a date and if there will be another date and many other minor details. Is there a difference between a date and "hanging out"?
Just as there was a time when first dates were more than "hanging out," we are in a time where "going on dates" does not imply "dating."
Grammatically, actively going on dates would use the verb "dating." Now, "going on dates" can lead to "dating." They aren't completely separate from each other, but instead, they are phrases that show different phases of college relationships.
I know it seems silly, but there is a noticeable difference between someone who says, "I've gone on a couple of dates with him" and someone who says, "I'm dating him."
"Going on dates" implies that it is still unclear if it will be a relationship. "Dating" is close to a relationship or a defined relationship. "Going on dates" implies it is cool and casual. "Dating" is serious. "Going on dates" means you went out a couple of times. "Dating" means you've been going out enough times that you stopped counting.
A huge factor to this difference is the popularization of "no labels" which implies a casual or undefined relationship. College students are favoring casual relationships, especially earlier in college. Therefore as "no labels" becomes more common, so does the difference between the phrases "going on dates" and "dating."
Going on dates and dating used to mean the same thing, but that was when first dates were more than "hanging out." In a new era of college dating, new stages of relationships have emerged.