What is a college?
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reforms taking place here, where all Diplom degree programs (3-4 year programs akin to bachelor’s programs) have been replaced by, guess what, bachelor’s degrees.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?