A Guide for Non-Americans: What is “college” and how does it differ from university?

An introduction to American higher education and the liberal arts for New Zealanders and Australians considering tertiary study in the US

Applying as a New Zealander to study for university in the United States was a daunting process. There were so many things I’d never heard of: the SATs, the Common App, “safety schools”, “reach schools”, financial aid, liberal arts, to name just a few. But I think what made the process most daunting right from the start—and what made it difficult to find the right information—was that I didn’t understand the fundamental terms to describe the university itself in the American system.

Americans do not go to university for undergraduate study. They go to “college”. In New Zealand everyone talks about going to “uni” straight out of high school, and we’ll be choosing between doing law, medicine, commerce, engineering, architecture, and other vocational degrees. But when you go to American universities’ websites to look at studying those things, you’ll soon see that all of them require a “college” degree as a prerequisite. And no, that doesn’t mean a high school diploma, despite us in NZ using “college” to refer to high school. This can all be overwhelming and can make little sense for those of us in countries that follow a roughly “British” model of education, and it’s something I get asked about often. So here’s a brief guide.

The first thing to know is that in the American system of higher education (that’s what we call “tertiary” education), you can only complete a Bachelor of Arts or a Bachelor of Science for your undergraduate degree. That’s right—no BCom, MB ChB, LLB, BAS, BE etc. In the United States, your undergraduate degree will only be a BA or a BSc, with honours, and it will take you four years to complete. (There are some exceptions to this rule, but they are in a very small minority). The “honours” part is usually not optional, as it is in Australia or New Zealand—if you get into the college, you’re going to do the honours part of the degree. This is why you’ll often hear many top schools in the United States called “honours colleges”, because simply by being admitted, every student is doing an honours program—it’s not something you apply for in your third year of study depending on how well you’ve done so far, as it is in New Zealand and Australia.

The term “college” itself comes from the fact that traditionally, higher education in America was conducted at liberal arts colleges. There were no universities. Yale was Yale College, not Yale University. Harvard was likewise Harvard College. These were usually small institutions at which students spent four years (as they do today) and completed a BA(Hons) (as they do today), and what made them truly unique was that all students lived on campus accommodation for all four years of their education (as they do today). Very often, professors lived and dined with students as well (as they often still do today!) So “college” is a physical place where you live and study for four years while completing your undergraduate education.

Universities later grew up around the colleges and began to offer professional or vocational degrees, which in the American system can only be studied at the postgraduate level. Yale University today, for instance, is now comprised of fourteen “schools”—one of which is Yale College, the only part of Yale to offer an undergraduate education. The other thirteen schools all offer postgraduate degrees, and twelve of them offer professional/vocational degrees—law, medicine, architecture, business, and so on. And yes, you first need an undergraduate “college” degree (or an equivalent undergraduate degree from another country) to gain admission into one of the “schools”.

So “colleges” are now often small parts of overall universities in the United States, but they remain an important centre for the whole institution. Sometimes, the original colleges declined to set up larger universities around the small college—these are now usually referred to as “small liberal arts colleges”, where the whole institution still only offers a BA or a BSc with Honours. Examples are Pomona College, Swarthmore College, Amherst, Williams, Wellesley, Haverford, Middlebury, Carleton, to name some of the better known ones.

One other thing to note is that because you live on campus in the American college, you will be placed in a specific residential college for your four years of study. While studying at Yale College, for example (itself one of the fourteen schools of Yale University), I was placed into Branford College, one of the fourteen constituent residential colleges that make up Yale College. Each of the fourteen colleges is its own residential community with student rooms, a dining hall, a courtyard, and other facilities. (Fourteen is not a significant number; it’s merely random that that is the number of schools and colleges at Yale.) Each residential college will have a “Rector” or a “Head”, who is responsible for your residential life, as well as numerous other staff. Residential colleges truly are like smaller families or communities within the larger college, which itself is a smaller part of the overall university. (That’s a lot of uses of the word “college”—I hope it’s all clear!)

In New Zealand and Australia, as well as many other countries, we have a certain disdain for “arts degrees”. The implication is that students who do an arts degree either weren’t smart enough to get into a program like law or medicine, or simply wanted an easy time at university. I got a great deal of flack from friends and friends’ parents when I was applying to US universities when they heard I would be doing an arts degree—they assumed I was giving up and wanted to party at university, as is often the stereotype here in New Zealand. But in the United States, this couldn’t be further from the reality, since all undergraduate programs are what we call “arts degrees”. The American model of higher education is entirely built around the arts degree, and it is virtually impossible to study anything other than an arts degree for your undergraduate education. Even doing a BSc for your undergraduate years will require you to have taken many courses in the humanities and social sciences—the BSc is essentially an indication that you majored in a science subject at college, and intend to pursue some kind of science-related study for your postgraduate degree.

This emphasis on the arts in the American system, and the impossibility of doing any professional or vocational study for undergraduate education, gets to the heart of what makes higher education in the US truly unique. It all comes down to “liberal education”, or the “liberal arts degree”. The term is widely misunderstood, even in the United States, and yet it’s critical to understanding US colleges and to determining whether study in the US might be for you.

Here’s how I explain liberal education: whereas university study in Australia and New Zealand is concerned with learning how to do things—how to be a lawyer, or a doctor, or a businessperson, and so on—undergraduate college education in the United States is intended to be about learning what you should do. 

Let’s delve into this a bit more. Undergraduate liberal arts colleges in the US—and those based on the US model, like Yale-NUS College in Singapore, where I study—often sell themselves based on the breadth of education you’ll receive. The idea is that whereas in Australia or NZ we immediately do highly specialised professional degrees and learn little outside that subject area, in the US undergraduate education is about broadening one’s mind, trying a whole range of subjects, and essentially having four years to explore intellectually before committing to a “vocation” which you will study at the postgraduate level. You’ll choose a “major”, which is the area you think you’re most interested in, but often there is a “common curriculum” or “distribution requirements” that forces you to take a range of subjects and classes outside that area. At Yale-NUS, for instance, one’s major (mine is Philosophy, Politics and Economics, for instance) is only 30% of all the courses that you take during the four years.

Breadth is an important characteristic of the liberal arts, but it is not the defining characteristic. What breadth achieves—and the reason all liberal arts colleges offer it—is that the point of your undergraduate education is to figure out what you want in life. Liberal education is about having four years to learn not about how to do things, though that may indeed be a part of your education, but instead to explore so that you can work out what you should want to do. Instead of asking during your undergraduate years, “How do I be a doctor, or a lawyer, or a journalist?”, liberal education is about asking “Should I want to be a doctor? Or should I be a writer instead?” It’s about using classes, and professors, and books, and mealtimes every day in the dining hall with friends and teachers, to learn about yourself for four years before committing to a profession or a vocation. With those four years of exploration, you should then be much more confident in the decisions you make about what to do with the rest of your life. And, of course, you then specialise to become a lawyer or a doctor during your postgraduate study.

Another way of explaining it is that university in Australia or New Zealand trains you to be a specialist in a certain subject area in which you’ll work for life; college in the US educates you on what it means to be human, so you’re more sure of what you should later train to be.

There are, of course, advantages and disadvantages to each system. In the US you’re more likely to become a well-rounded human being with wide-ranging knowledge and interests, and you’re more likely to be confident and sure of what vocation you choose to commit to by the time you think about postgraduate education and beyond. The downside is that you spend an extra four years doing this, whereas in Australia and New Zealand (as well as South Africa, India, and really anywhere that has developed its education system from the British model) you would spend that time specialising and then beginning your career earlier. You can therefore find yourself further behind in a career than those who had studied the vocation for their undergraduate study. A college education, then, is a luxury; not everyone can afford it, and we should remember that this kind of choice in education is a huge privilege.

Which system better suits you is therefore an individual choice, though I personally am a strong proponent of taking the extra time to learn about ourselves and the rest of our lives that comes from the American system. I think it encourages people to discover what truly matters to them—what kind of interests and work you’re willing to devote your life to. Without being very sure of the decision you make in the Australian and New Zealand education systems, you might find yourself waking up in your mid-twenties realising that the degree you’ve spent five or more years training for is in fact not what you want to do with the rest of your life. That’s a costly and disappointing realisation to have. Studying at an American college, by contrast, will give you a foundational understanding of yourself—will have (if it lives up to its ideal) helped you answer the questions of what you should do with your life, rather than how to do it—that will help you be a good person, whatever you later go on to do. Of course, you can have this kind of education for yourself in an Australian or New Zealand university by structuring your own education: you can do a BA(Hons) as you would in the United States. This is a great option, but you will need a degree of self-motivation and determination that you might not need at college in the US; here, you’ll face the stigma attached to “arts degrees” and won’t have the encouragement to explore intellectually that you would at a US college.

I’ll leave it there, and further note only that the picture I’ve painted of US colleges is a kind of ideal type. The degree to which colleges live up to that ideal will depend on the institution, and even down to the classes you take and professors you get—but nonetheless the fundamentals stand. That’s a brief primer on colleges vs universities, and what truly makes the American “liberal arts college” unique. Feel free to leave a comment or contact me if you have other questions, and I can always delve into specifics on other college-related questions in another blog post.

To end, here’s some additional reading I strongly recommend to anyone who is interested in the US higher education system and the difference between education and training:

Why Teach?, by Mark Edmundson

The Voice of Liberal Learning, by Michael Oakeshott

College: What it Was, Is and Should Be, by Andrew Delbanco

In Defense of a Liberal Education, by Fareed Zakaria

Seneca on the true purpose of philosophy

Seneca diagnosed the problem with philosophy two thousand years ago. In one of his letters that make up the Epistulae morales ad Lucilium (often called Letters from a Stoic when in translated book form), he writes that “What I should like those subtle teachers (philosophers)… to teach me is this: what my duties are to a friend and to a man, rather than the number of senses in which the expression ‘friend’ is used and how many different meanings the word ‘man’ has.” He goes on:

“One is led to believe that unless one has constructed syllogisms of the craftiest kind, and has reduced fallacies to a compact form in which a false conclusion is derived from a true premise, one will not be in a position to distinguish what one should aim at and what one should avoid. It makes one ashamed—that men of our advanced years should turn a thing as serious as this (philosophy) into a game.”

There are some of us who have had a strong gut reaction against every formal philosophy class we’ve ever taken, yet have been quite unable to say why. Was it a certain professor or teacher? No, because my views have been that way across every class and every professor. Was it a certain period of philosophy, a certain philosopher? It can’t be, because I’ve tried such a range, each time thinking it was just that class I didn’t like, and then trying another to find it exactly the same. Just what is it exactly that repels us so? Philosophy is meant to help us live an examined life, and yet in class all we examine are the constructions of sentences and arcane arguments.

Seneca mocks precisely these kinds of things in philosophy:

“‘Mouse is a syllable, and a mouse nibbles cheese; therefore, a syllable nibbles cheese.’ Suppose for the moment I can’t detect the fallacy in that. What danger am I placed in by such lack of insight? What serious consequences are there in it for me? What I have to fear, no doubt, is the possibility, one of these days, of my catching a syllable in a mousetrap or even having my cheese eaten up by a book if I’m not careful… What childish fatuities these are! Is this what we philosophers acquire wrinkles in our brow for?… Is this what we teach with faces grave and pale?”

I criticise my philosophy classes at the same time as I read philosophy each day in my spare time. The two are not the same. I read philosophy, and do not know what I’d do without it; I study philosophy, and wonder what the point of it is. Maybe the difference is, I enjoy philosophy, but do not enjoy the study of philosophising, which often seems to be what we do in university—the constructions a thinker used to make a point, rather than whether and how their point can help us live our lives.

When I read philosophy, I love it for its practicality. It’s often like having a chat about the important things in life with an old friend. In your head, you argue back and forth, put a philosopher’s argument up against another’s that you’ve read, and listen while they debate what you should do in a given situation. There are no rules, no rights and wrongs, though they can help you discover what you believe to be right and wrong, good and bad, wise and stupid. When studying philosophy at school and university, however, there are rules: it’s all about the precise meaning of words, the structure of your sentences, the strictness of your prose. This all becomes so important in this kind of philosophy—and your professor always demands it—that the more real purpose of reading philosophy is completely forgotten.

Seneca tells us exactly what philosophy is for, what it should aim at:

“Shall I tell you what philosophy holds out to humanity? Counsel. One person is facing death, another is vexed by poverty, while another is tormented by wealth—whether his own or someone else’s; one man is appalled by his misfortunes while another longs to get away from his own prosperity; one man is suffering at the hands of men, another at the hands of the gods. What’s the point of concocting whimsies for me of the sort I’ve just been mentioning (the mouse trap example)? This isn’t the place for fun—you’re called in to help the unhappy… All right if you can point out to me where those puzzles are likely to bring such people relief. Which of them removes cravings or brings them under control? If only they were simply unhelpful! They’re actually harmful.”

I think we all understand, at some deep level, the real kind of philosophy that Seneca describes; it’s just a shame that philosophy in universities, developing as they have along the analytic tradition, have become focussed on exactly the kind that he writes against. It’s easier, after all, for a teacher to grade a paper on logical fallacies or mechanics of argument than it is to grade a paper on how philosophy can help us live. But when it comes to our lives—and that’s what education is for—the former matters very little, and the latter a great deal. So it’s up to us to find a teacher who understands this (and they do exist, don’t get me wrong!), or whether we can learn from university philosophy while working around its frustrating requirements. Whatever the case is, philosophy is too important to ignore entirely, and let’s hope studying philosophy at university hasn’t put some people off forever.

The Prestige Paradox

The prestige paradox works like this: An enterprising, promising high school senior manages to secure admission to Harvard. Soon, this lucky kid is greeted with admiration and awe by those who hear of this impressive honor. The glow continues to follow our golden child throughout her college life. Every time she meets someone on an airplane, runs into an old friend from high school or talks to Aunt Clara, she is reminded of her special distinction. She can’t help but begin to define herself by it.

Unfortunately, however, once inside the Yard, this identity is complicated by the hundreds of other golden children that surround her. She is then faced with a problem: the rest of the world defines her by this admittedly arbitrary and superficial standard of success. But once here, this distinction is no longer so distinctive. In the midst of this impressive bunch, she must figure out how to maintain this hollow distinction.

The only way to maintain this fragile, prestige-based self-image, then, is to acquire more prestige. Hence, the paradox: The constant hunger always leaves one, well, hungry.

— Rustin Silverstein in The Harvard Crimson, 1998

There’s always more prestige to be had. When you’re on the outside of what is more prestigious, you want to be on the inside of it. When you’re on the inside, you see through it, but cannot admit it; so you strive for what is yet more prestigious, thinking this time it’ll be it. Years could pass rather quickly like that.

Dubious Lessons of a Well-Intended Education: On Fakework

Let’s be honest: education teaches us some truly dubious life lessons.

A friend of mine recently took a class in which the sole assignment for the whole semester was a single 6,000 word research paper on a topic of one’s choice. Despite giving her professor assurances to the contrary, she began the assignment the night before it was due. She wrote the entire paper in one sitting, editing as she went, and submitted without proofreading.

She said she deserved a bad grade, and would’ve accepted one with resolve. She’d been unengaged by the class and was planning to declare it as a pass/fail. And yet—when she received the graded paper back a few weeks later, it had received an A, and her professor was effusive in his praise. He wrote to her in an email something along the lines of: this is one of the best undergraduate papers I’ve ever read, and I can tell how much effort you’ve put into this. Keep up the hard work, and may your successes continue.

The lesson my friend learned was one of smart work, as opposed to hard work. Pretend to work hard, put in the minimal amount of effort necessary, confuse with big words, elegant sentences and a complex thesis, and the rewards will follow. Success depends as much on impression as on reality—the impression of hard work, the impression of intelligence.

The kind of ‘smart work’ I’m talking about is more than the “hack” mentality put forward by blogs like Lifehacker, and more than the productivity mantra of Silicon Valley. Where those look to help reduce the time it takes to carry out a given task (and that is, after all, the idea of technological progress), the smart work taught by our schools and universities changes what it means to complete a task. A task is complete so long as it gives the impression of it, no matter the thought, detail, care, conscience or morality behind it. Perhaps a better term is fakework.

“Yes, and?”, some will ask. “The activity is still complete. What’s it to others how it was completed? And besides, they’ll never know.”

Modern culture itself seems built on a similar kind of impressionism. It is probably a result of modern advertising, the ever-increasing fight by companies for our attention, the ever-decreasing time we feel we have. Politics is now the competition of the sound-bite. Advertising gives the impression of life transformation through the purchase of a product, when of course the underlying product can never live up to the impression that was sold.

We are taught the lesson in our schools and universities, because everyone—teachers and professors included—are subject to the same laws of impressionism. Teachers have similar constraints on their time as students, if not more, and it seems the trick, for many (though by no means all!), is to give the impression of having thoughtfully read and graded a paper without having truly done so. Because both students and teachers engage with it, it becomes one of the unspoken myths of one’s education. So long as you give the impression of hard work—and don’t call others out on theirs—all will be fine.

We take the lesson with us to the workplace, and it moves us onwards, forwards, upwards.

The problem is, we come to believe it. Fakework becomes not just an unspoken reality of our education systems, but a rule of modern life. If we could once switch fakework on and off depending on the activity, soon we forget it underlies our actions. And for some things in life, hard work is the only solution. It’s those times when the mere impression of it counts for absolutely nothing.

Like when your doctor tells you you’re at risk of a heart attack, and that you urgently need to get fit to improve your heart.

Like when you’re about to become a mother or a father and have just a few months to learn everything you need to know to keep your child safe and healthy and to give them the right start in life.

Like when you’re laid off at 55 and decide to write the novel you always wanted to write.

Like when your father has a stroke and you’re his sole care giver.

In these situations, and so many more where the only one watching is our own conscience and the only people affected are the ones we care most about, hard work is all there is.

Education is so all-encompassing, all-consuming, that we fail to see how the lessons we learn, no matter how broken were the incentives through which we learn them, are lessons we take with us through life. Our views, habits and approaches to life are formed when we aren’t watching; they’re formed when we’re looking the other way, trying to get an assignment done the night before it’s due. I suppose one should try always to keep a watchful eye turned in this direction, and to see every assignment and task as an opportunity to practice the habits and approaches we’ll need when life most tests us. We don’t want to be left floundering, wondering why fakework isn’t working exactly when we need it most.