Most high school students hear that “it’s different” from their college-enrolled friends, but are not privy to just how different college really is. They understand the freedom --in fact, they likely crave it -- but rarely are they told about the courses, classes and workload. College classes and instructors demand much more from students than high school. And that’s only the beginning.


The value of a free public education is integral to American values and has been available since the 17th century. While high school classes are free, postsecondary education can be extremely costly. Even at public colleges, courses can cost hundreds of dollars per credit; at private universities, students can easily shell out thousands for a single class.


Although the requirement varies by state, policies generally mandate attendance for students until age 16. Teachers take attendance, and there may be legal consequences for truancy. In college, attendance is the student's responsibility. Some professors do not take attendance; those who do may factor attendance into grading. Repeated absences can result in loss of credit, a failing grade or course dismissal.


The classes a student takes in high school depend upon a district’s offerings and graduation requirements. College-bound students need to also consider the expectations of the universities they may attend. College classes, however, are much more diverse. While a high school student may take a class in American literature, a college student can choose from courses dedicated to a broad outlook of American lit or one focusing on a single author or genre. Brown University has offered courses on writer John Cage, the American political drama and clown aesthetics. College students have much more latitude in the courses they choose to fulfill the requirements of their major and how they fit those classes into their schedules.

Size and Structure

Most high schools courses meet every day and are structured into a six-hour span. Although class size varies by school, high school classes tend to have fewer than 35 students. In college, a student might have 100 classmates in an introductory political science class and only a dozen in an advanced physics course. College courses do not meet every day, but rather two or three times a week. A student might have three courses meeting on Mondays and not a single class on Tuesdays.

Content and Expectations

High school and college classes also differ in the content covered and the expectations teachers have of their students. Much of what high school teachers present may be geared toward a passing grade on a standardized test. Student must memorize facts and be able prove their retention through examinations. Southern Methodist University advises incoming freshmen that professors expect students to think and work independently and be able to synthesize seemingly unrelated ideas. It notes: “College is a learning environment in which you take responsibility for thinking through and applying what you have learned.” College professors often give fewer answers and ask more questions.

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