The Difference Between American and British Higher Education

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As a British citizen writing for an American company, I sometimes find it hard to understand the difference between the American and British higher education system.  So I decided to take a bit deeper dive into this topic, and summarize my findings for everyone below.  My editor, Jon, who is in the US will also weigh in with his American-centric comments along the way.

According to the world university rankings compiled by the Times Higher Education, more than half of the world’s top 200 universities are located in either the U.S or the U.K.  However, although we speak the same language and appear to have similar employment opportunities and prospects, the way we do university (or ‘college’ as Americans call it) is actually really quite different.

I have summarized the key differences (as I see them) below. I hope you find it useful!

1. The grading system is very different

In the U.K., the grade that we achieve at the end of university is based on our results of handful of high-stake exams and assignments. At the end of our final year, we receive either a ‘third’ which is if we score between 40-50%, a lower-second class honours which is if we score of 50-60%, an upper second class honours which is if we score of 60-70% and a first class honours which is 70% or more. If you achieve lower than a third, you receive an ordinary degree without an honours.

Editor’s note:  I left “honours” spelled with a “u” since this specifically applies to the UK-centric designation.

Whereas, in the U.S “grades” are given by the teachers, who assess the quality of each students work throughout an entire term. All assessments are graded A-F, which typically correlates as something like 90% to 100% is an A, 80% to 90% is a B, etc.. At the end of the degree, these are averaged out and converted in a Grade Point Average (GPA), ranging from 0-4.00 whereby A=4, B=3, C=2, etc.  Degrees are then conferred “with honors” in a similar way to the UK however the exact criteria in terms of how that equates to GPA can vary by the school.

2. The length of the degree program

In the US, “undergraduate” degrees are typically four years long. Whereas in the UK, degrees are typically three years. Of course, there are some exceptions. For example, some people take a ‘placement year/year in industry’. This means that they take a break from studying to get work experience and that their degree takes four years to complete.  Also, in the US its more common to spend the first 1-2 years on more general “core” classes and then the last 2-3 years on specific courses related to the degree.

3. Depth versus breadth

As mentioned above, in the U.S. university students study a wide range of subjects for the first two years. For example, if you are doing an arts degree, you still might have to take a maths module. As students in the U.S progress from a freshman, to a sophomore, to a junior to senior year, they will focus more on the subject they really want to study. After two years of general study, U.S students have to pick a ‘major’. This is the area that they would like to learn about in more depth.

In the U.K., we do things a little different. Our degrees consist of three years of studying the same topic. This make our course more focused and specialized. However, it does compromise choice and flexibility. Its more like the latter part of a 4-year program in the US.

4. The workload is different

In U.K, we tend to have a few major assessments per module and then multiple exams at the end of the year. Whereas the poor students in the United States have more consistent assessments (essays, quizzes, homework) throughout the year.

However, although American students will generally have a more consistent workload, only having a few contributing assignments means that British students face immense pressure during exam/deadline periods. On top of this, as we don’t get to take a minor, our pressure starts right from the word go…

5. The difference in cost is humongous

In the U.K, we pay £9,000 a year for a tuition. Now,  I thought this was seriously expensive… In other European countries, their university education is free (or very VERY cheap).

However, I was utterly flabbergasted to learn that higher education in the U.S was even more expensive AND that it varies between university. I honestly nearly chocked on my coffee when I read that, at a top university in the U.S, the average fee for a four year course is $35,830 (£27,808) per year… BONKERS.

Editor’s note:  The cost of higher education in the US has increased dramatically in the past 20-30 years.  Largely this is a result of grants, low-cost government-backed school loan programs, and a general PR campaign advocating college over trade schools which is quite past its usefulness and now really needs to be reversed.

6. Sports are MUCH bigger in the U.S

My friends and I actually have this conversation a lot. In the U.K., we are of course encouraged to play sports. And, we compete against other universities in what is known as a ‘varsity’.  But its more of a hobby or extracurricular.  In the U.S., college sports (at the Division 1 level) are essentially minor-league or semi-professional in nature.  And its “big business” for the schools when it comes to revenue.

As a sporty person myself, I am fascinated by the recognition that college sport gets in the US. College football teams are almost as good as professionals, and many students secure college places based on sport. Un the U.K., I rowed while at university. We were good, but we were only ever to compete against other “uni” teams. Whereas, in the US, being a good rower at college takes you much further… and I think thats amazing!

Editor’s note:  The original headline here was “Sport is MUCH bigger in the U.S.”.  This is another different in grammar in the US vs. UK.  In the UK one uses the word “sport” to refer to the general topic, while in the US we use the word “sports” as a plural and the singular “sport” is implied to refer to only one particular game or type of sport.

7. Accommodations are very different

In the U.K., it is unheard of for two university students to share a room… it would be considered strange. However, in the U.S, students are expected to share a room. Colleges believe that these creates friendships. Which, I do agree with to some extent. But I think I’d find it annoying always having to share a room.  (Editor’s note:  pretty much everyone in the US finds it annoying at first, but then appreciates it for the friendship and social aspect).

Similarly, UK halls tend to be uncatered. We leave our parents home and are forced to learn to cook… how horrific! In the US, however, most students eat their meal in a cafeteria, where set meals are provided for them

8. The U.S have fraternities and sororities

I think, as someone from the U.K., this is one of the strangest things about American universities. Exclusive social groups, with fraternities being for men and sororities for women, seems strange. The fact that students have to be invited to join these groups and have to complete pledging processes to become members seems like a recipe for disaster. But hey, this is a tradition that has been going on for years and who am I to judge?!

There are some similarities to the U.K., education system however. Mainly, U.K. sports teams will make new members (freshers as we call them) complete challenges, which are often humiliating. This occurs to in some sororities or fraternities and is known as ‘hazing’. However, rightly so, both U.K. and U.S. universities are cracking down on this.

Editor’s note:  In the US this can be a really big deal at some schools (mostly larger, state schools) or not a big deal at other schools.  But sure, its definitely a thing and I think many of us see the negatives as well as the positives here.

Wrapping up

So, there you have it. The big differences between higher education on either side of the pond.

Of course, this all does vary dependent on course. Some courses are more hands on and will therefore require more assignments and practical assessments than others.

Let me know if you have any experience in either American or British higher education systems. Are you an American who went to uni in England? Or vice versa? How did you find it?

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