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What is a college?

September 24, 2009

During a conversation with a colleague here the other day, the common misunderstanding of the term college in American English reared its head yet again. I marvel that this is still the case in 2009 after the wave of educational reforms in German universities, but it is so.

Back in the 1980s, when I first encountered this issue (I did my bachelor of arts degree at a US liberal arts college, specifically Colorado College) I would nearly always hear the response, oh, yes, an American bachelor’s degree, just like our Abitur here in Germany. This was irritating on many levels, and also patently incorrect. The Abitur is a high school leaving exam, not a degree of higher education, and the insistence that a German Gymnasium was in those days better than a US high school failed to grasp the fundamental difference between our educational systems. In the US, we have only one form of high school (a Gesamtschule in German terms) where all graduates receive a diploma, so perhaps it was fair to say that the average graduate from a US high school was not of Gymnasium quality, but American high schools produced and still produce legions of highly talented graduates that are certainly on par with those who have an Abitur. In my high school days, I took an entire battery of AP tests, and having seen a fair number of Abitur test questions over the years, I would suggest that the former are more punishing.

Now that Germany has seen the rise of the Gesamtschule in so many places, thankfully this particular bias (that the Abitur equals an American bachelor’s degree) is waning. What is really making it go away of course are all of the educational reforms taking place here, where all Diplom degree programs (3-4 year programs akin to bachelor’s programs) have been replaced by, guess what, bachelor’s degrees. There are many differences between US and German bachelor’s degrees in the details–we emphasize a liberal arts curriculum that is virtually unknown here, where one takes nearly every single class within the confines of the degree major–but on the whole they represent the same level of achievement, I would suggest. Suddenly, Germans ‘get’ the American bachelor’s degree, and having a common vocabulary for degrees certainly makes things easier.

Hence I was surprised to hear from my colleague the other day his confusion about what a college is. We had previously argued (politely) about how the HTWK should translate its units into English. In German, they are called Fakultäten, and in the European context, this is frequently translated as faculty of whatever subject. He thought the HTWK should follow this trend, pointing out that almost all German universities use this term. I countered by noting that if it is truly about internationalization, then one should look beyond the European context. Other than in the British Commonwealth (e.g.- Canada, Australia, etc.), the academic subunits of a university are typically referred to as schools or colleges.

When the topic came up the other day, I remarked that at many (most?) US universities, colleges issue bachelor’s degrees, while a separate entity, typically known as the graduate school, issues master’s degrees and doctorates. Professional schools are sometimes colleges, sometimes schools, but that doesn’t seem to ruffle anyone’s feathers. My colleague objected and said, but you also have whole institutions that call themselves colleges. He is correct, of course, but he fails to see the consistent use of the term between universities and colleges. The ‘college’ within the university context is not all that different from an entire institution that calls itself a college. Colleges such as Williams, Reed, Whitman, et al. typically grant only bachelor’s degrees. A university is nothing more than a collection of colleges/schools, all of which enjoy some degree of autonomy from each other, have their own administrations, and also grant bachelor’s to their students.

Of course, the devil is in the details, but this is generally how things work, I would suggest. There are liberal arts colleges that call themselves universities because they have some small graduate division, such as Lewis & Clark’s law school or the University of Portland’s business school, and others that just use the name for some historical reason, such as Colgate University.

This topic interests me mainly because of the enduring mantra of “internationalize” that one hears in both US and German academia (and likely elsewhere, but I work in these two countries). The fact that the HTWK chooses linguistically to dwell entirely within the European context makes me wonder if the goals of this internationalization movement are actually so narrowly defined. In the US, “internationalization” is a gloss mainly for reaching out to the Asian subcontinent and East Asia. That makes perfect sense, given that these regions represent together a huge portion of the global population and are regions with fantastic economic and social growth taking place. Germany constantly laments not having elite universities; would it be heresy to suggest that if one limits oneself to the European context that that is going to be hard to change?

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7 Comments
  1. Lydia permalink
    September 25, 2009 13:35

    Colgate University actually does have a (small) Masters of Arts in Education program, so they are still technically a University.

  2. Dale permalink*
    September 25, 2009 13:46

    Thanks for pointing this out. I might counter by noting that I can think of at least a handful of liberal arts colleges (that use the name College) that also offer teaching master’s degrees. What surprises me about all of this academic nomenclature fun is just how much leeway and flexibility there is in the terminology. Says something, I think, about academic culture in general.

  3. Lydia permalink
    September 26, 2009 00:31

    On the other side there’s Dartmouth College, which has Medical, Business and Engineering graduate programs.

  4. Dale permalink*
    September 28, 2009 13:13

    Yes, messy it is. But on the main, I think the nomenclature is fairly clear despite these numerous exceptions. I suppose institutions fiddle around with it for a variety of reasons, some to maintain old traditions, others to build new ones.

  5. Jennifer permalink
    October 13, 2009 21:41

    Abitur does not equal college. Period. End of discussion. Abitur doesn’t even equal the first year of college. Abitur does not guarantee that students are equipped to do university-level work. The quality of any level of achievement, whether a HS diploma, an Abitur, or a BA, BS, BFA degree, is ultimately based on what the learner puts into that experience, and even an MBA or PhD can be based on the absolute minimum standards and say little about the earners real credentials. However, to claim that an extra year of 1/2-day school equals two years of college is totally absurd.

  6. Ursula permalink
    March 2, 2010 09:48

    I am a translator, or studying to become one, and I very often encounter stereotypes and prejudices that paint a very dismal picture of the American education system. Abitur is not on par with a bachelor’s degree, and most people who claim otherwise are simply basing their opinion on a vague (and very false) sense of cultural supremacy.

    However, to say that the Diplom is the equivalent of a bachelor’s degree is also wrong. A Diplom at a Fachhochschule might take only 3-4 years, but a Diplom at a university does not. This difference later translates to higher wages for people with a university Diplom, better chances for high power positions etc.
    A Diplom does not take 3-4 years, but 4-5 or even 6 years, depending on the “Regelstudienzeit”, mean study time, that is calculated for the programm. Most Diplom degrees take 9 semestres, 4.5 years. Some, like psychology, take even more, in this case 11 semesters or 5,5 years.

    This is basically the reason why people who have a university Diplom are very unhappy with the introduction of bachelor’s, because they are now also identified as “undergrads”.

    Internationalisation is a good idea on principle, however to simply copy a system from another culture will always cause problems. I see the advantage of having a europe wide means of comparing education standards, but I am not so sure about just copying a system from another culture.

    [I know this was not the main focus of your blog post, so my apologies for rambling on for as long as I did.]

  7. Dale permalink*
    March 2, 2010 10:02

    No worries, Ursula, about rambling, and many thanks for your thoughts on a university Diplom vs. an FH-Diplom. You are, of course, correct that there are differences, but one could counter that depending on the field, the university Diplom can indeed end up resembling a bachelor’s. There are, as you know, many bachelor’s degrees, particularly in engineering, that qualify one to work in the field, and tend to be more intensive in terms of learning specific domain knowledge than, say, a bachelor’s in history, which is really more of an introduction meant to lead to further study in that field or a related discipline.

    But this is splitting hairs, and your comment highlights how fraught comparisons can be, and that standardization brings a lot of woe along with some improvements.

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