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

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.

Swimming Upstream at College

“It is particularly painful when those colleges at the top of the usual lists, the ones with the most resources and (as they like to claim) the most talent, fail to confront their obligations—when, as the former dean of Harvard College, Harry Lewis, puts it, they “affect horror” that “students attend college in the hope of becoming financially successful, but… offer students neither a coherent view of the point of a college education nor any guidance on how they might discover for themselves some larger purpose in life.”

— Andrew Delbanco, College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be

The gap between the ideal of a liberal arts education and its reality seems ever-growing. It isn’t that one cannot pursue an ideal kind of liberal education at a liberal arts college—the kind that focusses on self-examination, reading the great books to give meaning to experience. One can pursue that education. But what Delbanco so aptly puts is that when students arrive on campus, there is no mention of that larger vision of liberal education, no reminders that that is what we are here for.

And so education begins to merge with the language used daily, the subtle pressures from university offices and graduate employers. It is not overt, and it isn’t sinister. It is simply that in the busyness and pressures of everyday life at college, thought about the purpose of it all becomes a luxury one cannot afford. That is the great irony of a college education today.

To pursue liberal education as one thought about it before starting college, then, is not just to choose one path of two when they diverge… Instead, it is to swim upstream, against the current. It requires twice the strength over a sustained period of time, and it’s often all too easy to say simply, let’s go with the flow.

Commodified Learning in the Flipped Classroom

Formal education has always seemed a paradox for me. On the one hand I am passionate about learning and passionate about what schools and universities can do for individuals and societies. This perhaps stems from my having attended over ten different educational institutions in six different countries. But on the other hand, my own experience in formal schooling, most especially my high school years, was an exemplary case of education getting in the way of someone’s learning. At times this has led to some hard-to-reconcile positions, like when, as an International Baccalaureate scholar at my high school, I complained in an interview to a local newspaper about not learning enough in school.

But the paradox makes sense, I think, when one separates what education is at its core from its present manifestation. One could love architecture but nevertheless live in a less-than-stellar house; one could be an artist yet hang prints on their walls. So long as there is an attempt to improve what one believes in, I don’t see the paradox as being real; the frustrations, the desire to fix and improve, merely emphasise the depth of one’s passion.

At some point during my second to last year in high school I discovered the term “flipped classroom”. The idea was to return education to its roots in learning: have students consume information at home through books and online videos, and then in class turn that information into knowledge through questioning and discussing with the teacher. As each day I went to school and sat through hours of teachers merely repeating back the reading I’d done at home (not all of them, to be sure, but certainly the majority), the idea seemed to recapture the belief in what education was meant to be about.

It was very exciting, then, to attend a talk last night by Professor Eric Mazur of Harvard, the man who is generally recognised to have come up with the flipped classroom model (or what he calls peer instruction). Eric spoke at Yale-NUS of his “confessions of a converted lecturer”, how he realised as a teacher that he was wasting his own and his students’ time by merely repeating what books already said, focussing on transfer of information rather than the understanding of knowledge. The audience was actually made up of Yale-NUS professors, rather than students, which made for a different perspective than the one I’ve so far been used to thinking from.

Through examples, data, and an interactive session, Eric had seemingly all the professors convinced of the flipped classroom model. This was true at least for those whose subjects require transfer of information at some point; there is a great difference between philosophy, which I think focusses on knowledge from the start, and the sciences, which begin with information and must move to knowledge.

But to my surprise, by the end of the talk I wasn’t convinced. I had gone into the lecture already convinced of the flipped classroom model, merely wanting to hear the idea from its inventor’s mouth; I left with serious doubts, at least about the extent to which it is being taken. And what struck me was how the one class I’ve taken that was the most faithful reproduction of a flipped classroom model was the one class I and my peers came to despise most. Eric’s talk inadvertently ended up explaining why.

Eric’s goal with the flipped classroom is to have every student prepared for every class. To achieve this, he encouraged teachers to focus on ensuring that everyone has the information needed before the start of class. His new company produces an online reading tool that has students annotate their readings and ask questions of each other on a web platform. Through an algorithm, the software analyses the highlights and comments and determines how “thoughtful” students were, then assigning a grade. The advantage of this is that teachers then know exactly what students understand, what they don’t, and what questions they have. Teachers can also test students’ dedication to their readings through short quizzes at the start of class. All of these annotations, questions and quizzes will contribute to a student’s grade.

What I hated most about that class (well, really two classes, each which focussed on slightly different aspects) that most faithfully lived up to the flipped classroom model was that everything I read was done with a grade hanging over my head. The passages I chose to highlight and question on the course website would be graded! If something struck me as interesting, I first had to think about whether I should highlight it or not; what if it wasn’t a “good” annotation? The annotations were, after all, public for my classmates and professor to see. I found an interesting passage, highlighted it, and also wanted to write a comment to myself on something to remember. But what would my professor think of that? Would my comment be good enough to receive an “A” grade? All the while I had to focus on memorising the information on every page, since the first ten minutes of every class would be a test on my recall and ability to apply what I had read.

The extent to which Professor Mazur has taken the flipped classroom model has essentially commodified learning entirely.

Students are now incentivised to learn, to turn information into knowledge, it is true. And data shows that this works! Students will remember information better, and in class they will come to grasp its implications more clearly. But what data can never show is how that knowledge comes to affect students’ lives. And as a student in an entirely flipped classroom, I came to see how nothing done for class was done for an intrinsic reason. A flipped classroom requires extrinsic motivators, and though these work in improving both recall and understanding, they necessarily work against the last step of education—how knowledge affects life. Reading, annotations and comments in the margin are done for classes’ sake, and what the flipped classroom forgets is that the classroom is only the starting point of education. It is what happens when a student leaves a classroom with knowledge that determines the success of education. It seemed as though Professor Mazur and his model of a flipped classroom has thought so much about the classroom that he has seemingly forgotten that the classroom is merely instrumental, not in itself the end of education.

Imagine a philosophy class practising the flipped classroom. The contradiction would become absurd. Philosophy, which takes knowledge as useful for its own sake, which hopes to ask and instruct how we should live, would then be reduced for students merely to “intelligent” and “thoughtful” annotations, and pop quizzes at the start of class. The point of a philosophy class is for students to discover for themselves how to live; to have tools with which to think about material, but ultimately leaving the application of that material up to students. It can only have intrinsic motivators, where a flipped classroom can only have the extrinsic.

So we’re back to a kind of paradox like the one I began with. I haven’t given up on the flipped classroom, but I am now far more aware of its limits and its dangers. The task is to find or encourage intrinsic motivators (if that is not too great a contradiction), so that the flipped classroom can remain merely an educational tool. The danger with any great educational innovation is that it forgets education is really only what happens afterwards.

Eric Mazur flipped classroom Yale-NUS

Note: Emphasis was added to make clear that two different classes I’ve taken tried to replicate the flipped classroom model, and each focussed on slightly different aspects of it.