Written by Joanna Hughes

Knowing you want to pursue international studies is one thing. But knowing what to expect when you get there is another -- especially if you’re switching continents. The reality is that all higher education settings aren’t created equal. Read on for a breakdown of key differences between European and American universities.

1. Housing

Dormitories, AKA “dorms” or “residence halls,” are very much a part of the college experience in the US. While living in off-campus housing may be an option -- particularly for upperclassman and graduate students -- dorms and undergraduate life in the US are inextricably intertwined.

Depending on the school, however, there are also many different types of dorm rooms. For starters, many are doubles (shared by two students) and triples (shared by three students). Singles also exist, but tend to be rare and in great demand. Furthermore, some dorms are modern with modern amenities, such as air conditioning. Others are more basic. In most cases, furniture is provided along with the room, including a bed and mattress, desk, desk chair, lamp, and dresser. 

Dorms also vary in terms of size, location, cost and vibe. While students may have some say in the type of dorm they live in, housing is typically coordinated by the schools housing office.

Across the pond, the dorm concept is largely non-exist. Rather, most students in Europe live off campus in rented apartments. As a result, students in Europe may be more integrated into the communities surrounding their universities with less of a focus on the campus itself as a social hub.

One exception? The UK, where students are provided with residence halls -- often with cleaning service, no less!

2. Price

No comparison of colleges in the US and in Europe is complete without mention of price. The US is well-known for its high tuition costs (and resulting high student debts upon graduation).  According to The College Board, the average yearly tuition fees for a private four-year college in the US is $32,410. Public four-year colleges are less expensive, averaging $9,410 a year for in-state students and $23,890 a year for out-of-state students. The good news? Several different financial aid options are available to students, including grants and scholarships, loans, and work-study arrangements.

Alternatively, college tuition in many western, central and northern European countries -- with the UK being a notable exception -- is completely free for nationals and EU students. While students may have to cover their own living costs (and countries like Germany will help with this, too, for students who can’t afford it), many will save big on tuition fees.

The takeaway? European students looking to study in the US should prepare for sticker shock, although financial aid is abundant. Meanwhile, US students pursuing European degrees may not be eligible for free tuition, but could still find themselves pleasantly surprised thanks to lower costs in general as well as shorter degree programs (three years compared to four).

3. University Structure

While students in the US eventually chose a major, most pursue broader fields of study across multiple disciplines for the first two years of college with a “core curriculum” guiding the way. Not only are different departments more interconnected, but US college students have the opportunity to explore many different topics during their university years.

Conversely, at most European universities, students typically apply for and are admitted to independent degree programs (sometimes called “colleges”), which determine the classes they take. In this respect, students at European universities have less freedom in choosing courses than their American counterparts.

4. Classes and Coursework

University enrollments in the US span from hundreds to hundreds of thousands of students. Depending on the type of school you choose, course sizes can vary from small to massive. While introductory classes are typically structured as lectures, more advanced classes are likely to be smaller with plenty of opportunities for student-faculty interaction. Additionally, throughout the semester students can expect regular reading and writing assignments -- all of which impact their final grade.

Public European universities are much larger than the average US college, and may have higher student-faculty ratios. As a result, students may find fewer opportunities for interacting with professors. Furthermore, while students are responsible for a significant amount of reading at European universities, there is often a larger degree of autonomy when it comes to getting it done: In fact, the final exam may determine a student’s entire grade for a course.

Whether you’re choosing where to study or attempting to prepare for studies in a particular destination, understanding the local higher education system can help. euThese four tips are a great place to start when it comes to familiarizing yourself with general university policies and practices in the US and Europe.






ArticleStudent Tips
Joanna worked in higher education administration for many years at a leading research institution before becoming a full-time freelance writer. She lives in the beautiful White Mountains region of New Hampshire with her family.
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