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