From the Horse's Mouth
In many parts of the world, post-secondary education is called University, or “Uni” for short. In the USA, there are many universities, some of them world famous. However, in this country there is also a unique concept separate from university, called “college”.
What the heck is college?? College does not mean, generally speaking, a residential subset of a university the way it does say, at Oxford or Cambridge. It also does not mean a secondary-level institution, as it can mean in the United Kingdom. It can technically mean the undergraduate division of a university, for example Harvard University has Harvard College for teaching undergraduates and granting undergraduate degrees, or an institution of higher education that teaches only undergraduates, for example Amherst College.
However, “college” in the USA is a broader concept than even that. College is a special, theoretically four-year, period of higher education, in which the students live in a cloistered, special environment, the “campus”.
The campus is neither the parents’ home nor the “real world”. Instead, it is its own thing. I would say this is the default concept implied when people talk about “going to college.”
So why is this relevant? Americans often mention their “college experience”. College is about discovering oneself, growing as a person, from adolescence toward adult-hood. This personal growth happens largely through social activities with other students as well as through extra-curricular activities. College is so much more than about coursework.
The dominant mode of socialization of students at a particular college depends on the culture of the college. At some colleges, the majority of students are members of fraternal residential organizations and social life revolves around these. In other words, the college is a party school. At other colleges, there are no frats, and socialization occurs through other channels. In general, college students have parties on the weekends, in which they coalesce, navigate romantic and sexual relationships, and get acculturated to drinking (and often over-imbibing on) alcohol. There are many other particular features of a particular college’s social scene, but these factors above seem to be the lowest common denominators across much of “the college experience.”
Until the late 1960s and early 1970s, most well-known colleges were male only. After that time, they became “co-educational”, a term devised to describe admission of both male and female undergraduate students. Hence you still occasionally hear the term “co-ed” to describe a female college student. A few prominent women’s only college remained “single sex”, a term that oddly describes only all-female colleges because there really aren’t any all-male colleges except catholic religious seminaries and institutions like that, which really aren’t college at all.
Another important part of college is having structured “extra-curricular” activities. These hobbies or pre-professional activities are an important part of personal formation. Examples include writer for or editor of the student newspaper, volunteering for charities, giving campus tours to applicants, participating in a debate team. Debate is a uniquely Anglo-Saxon pastime in which participants are given one side of a political argument and told to make their best case with only a short amount of preparation. Other extracurricular activities include leadership positions in student government or “Greek life." Greek refers to fraternities, most of which have Greek letters as their name as a vestige of a time when higher education was classics based and much of the study was in Greek or Latin).
Another important kind of extracurricular activity is the internship. This is a quasi-job, often “off campus” (i.e. outside the gates of the college campus – they always have gates), in which a student obtains course credit or nominal remuneration in exchange for providing his labor a few times a week. An internship might be at a bank, or at a governmental agency, or a retail establish or at pretty much any kind of employer. Internships are important stepping stones to post-college employment, since the actual curriculum of a typical college student contains little that is specifically-related to career.
College courses are usually required in a wide range of subjects, from foreign languages, to mathematics, to science, to English and literature, to history and politics. These are sometimes called distribution requirements and most colleges require their undergraduates to take a collection of courses that make him or her well-rounded and generally knowledgeable about a lot of different topics without being an expert in any. There is of course the “college major”, a concentration of courses in a particular subject. Sometimes a major is vocation-focused, e.g. accounting or marketing, but more likely, especially at more prestigious colleges, a major is intellectually focused.
The residential campus ideal
When someone talks about college, the default arrangement involves a residential community. It implies a situation in which the vast majority of undergraduate students live in dormitories on a “campus”. A campus is an often-idyllic park-like space with defined borders, or even actual gates and walls around it, that also contains the dormitories where students live, course buildings, some structures for socializing such a student center or fraternity houses, and sports facilities. This is all very different from higher education physical plant in most of continental Europe and Latin America, and probably much of the world. There, the university (there is no separate concept of college) is typically in large buildings in a town or urban center, without any concept of campus at all. And furthermore, students typically live with their parents or incidentally live in apartments nearby scattered across this town or district of a city.
Affinity-building and future identity (alumni networks)
A very important function of the college experience is to provide graduates of the college with a ready-made affinity group. As a result of the personal-growth element of college and the extreme socializing that often occurs there, students typically leave college with an oversize sense of nostalgia about and identification with their college and, by extension, with anyone else who is a graduate of that college despite their age. (Another typical feature of college is the existence of immutable traditions that are retained from generation to generation that bind together different age-groups into a sense of shared experience).
So that's college in a nutshell. Pretty different from Uni!
CAVEAT CAVEAT CAVEAT - As you may have guessed, I'm basically a posh guy. So my posts will have a certain perspective. What I describe above as the college experience, is definitely NOT the higher education experience for all Americans. Many Americans go to commuter colleges, small local colleges that often offer 2-year associates degrees aimed toward job placement, or to community colleges, which are state-funded commuter colleges that also have adult education courses and the like. Many colleges in the largest cities of the Northeast do not really have a campus, and students live "off-campus" in regular apartments scattered around the city. There are hundreds of colleges in America, of all levels of academic prestige, culture, character and overall utility. There has also been a secular change of late, in that families are questioning the value of college as the sticker price for one year of undergraduate education now exceeds $50,000. Why this happened is the topic for another day.
Just an American guy living in New York who knows what it is like to be an expat