What's the Difference?
Some of the ways in which college is different from high school.
James Hayes-Bohanan, Ph.D.
Associate Professor, Geography
Revised: May 21, 2008

Often, professors and first-year students do not understand each other. Both have been immersed for many years in something that looks like school.
The goals, expectations, and routines in these schools are, however, quite different. This page provides a few examples. My assumptions page provides more.



The difference between college and high school is perhaps best illustrated by the example of three students who receive the same poor grade on an exam. They respond as follows:

Sally asks, "Are you going to curve this?  It was too hard."
Jane asks, "How did everybody else do?  What was the average?"
Mary asks, "What can I do to prepare better for next time?"
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Work Load

A typical course load in high school includes more than 30 hours of classroom instruction, but 12 to 15 hours is considered a full load in college. The reason for this is that college courses typically require two to three hours of preparation for each hour spent in the classroom. Students are expected to come to class having already studied the material, so that more information can be covered each semester than is possible in a typical high school setting.

Adult Students

The vast majority of college students are adults (i.e, over 18 years old), whereas almost all high school students are adolescents. This means that college students will have more competing responsibilities -- such as jobs and families -- than high school students. It also means, however, that college students are typically self motivated and more able to take responsibility for their own learning.

Among the adults in college are some -- often known as "non-traditional" or "returning" -- students who are older than the typical student who has recently completed high school. These students often face special challenges as they balance family and job responsibilities with school, especially if they have not been in an academic environment for a number of years. In many cases, however, they make special contributions to the classes they take, as they model a strong commitment to learning while sharing insights they have gained from added life experience.

Non-Compulsory Education

Although college is increasingly important for long-term financial security, it is not compulsory in this country. This means that all college students are enrolled voluntarily, and should be motivated more by their desire to learn than by the detailed requirements of the syllabus. Just as in high school, students who are most genuinely interested in learning for its own sake will be most successful.

Often, those with a desire to learn are discouraged or even ridiculed by their family members. If this sounds too familiar, you will find encouragement in Dear Abby's June 29, 2004 column, especially the letter from Dr. Ballou.

Teacher or Professor?

College faculty are called "professors," not "teachers." It is customary at Bridgewater to address professors as "Professor Smith,"  for example. Many professors have earned doctoral degrees; they may be addressed either as "Doctor Smith" or "Professor Smith" -- but not "Mrs. Smith."  The degrees will often follow the professor's name, as in Mary Smith, Ph.D. or Jane Smith, Ed.D.  The Ph.D. is a Doctor of Philosophy, although it is awarded in many disciplines besides philosophy. The Ed.D. is the Doctor of Education, which is awarded in the discipline of Education. "Doc," by the way, is a term of endearment for some professors and a minor annoyance for others.

Both teachers and professors undergo extensive training and evaluation before they are allowed into the classroom. Although exceptions are relatively common, college faculty generally lack the credentials to teach in elementary and high school, just as K-12 teachers lack the credentials to teach in colleges. Just as the needs of the institutions differ, so does the kind of training required.

One difference, for example, is that although many teachers contribute to ongoing scholarship in their fields, for professors this is an integral part of the job. This is why professors do not spend as many hours each week teaching as do high school teachers. Moreover, although professors do cooperate with each other, they enjoy a greater degree of autonomy to decide their own curricula and grading systems.

Something that surprises a lot of people coming from high school to college is that professors are sometimes not as easy to find. Professors spend fewer hours in the classroom and more hours doing research and serving on committees. These activities often require them to be away from their offices, or even away from the campus, for many hours or even entire days or weeks at a time.  Many professors I know (including myself) pride ourselves on having open doors when we are in the office, so students can feel comfortable dropping by, but we often must be away from the office. Sometimes a professor will even be away from his or her e-mail account for hours or days at a time, so communicating with professors requires a bit of patience and planning ahead.


Multi-culturalism and diversity may have become clichés, but they are an important part of the college experience, and for many students they represent a significant departure from high school. Variety is the spice of life (please forgive another cliché), and variety both in and out of the classroom is a valuable part of the college experience.

General education programs are the foundation of any liberal arts program. The purpose of such a program, in my view, is to stimulate the intellect in a variety of ways, using the particular modes of learning and expression of a variety of disciplines. If successful, such an experience not only broadens each student's exposure to the world of ideas, but it also prepares the student for a variety of learning experiences in the future. It is the intellectual equivalent of athletic cross-training. It is what distinguishes a liberal-arts program from a vocational program. The dividends of such a learning program might not be readily apparent to the student until many years after the fact.

In addition to a stimulating curriculum, college life offers many opportunities to meet people from different backgrounds. For many people, college provides the first opportunity to work closely with people from another country or religious tradition. College is a time to have meaningful interaction -- often for the first time -- with somebody who has strongly different political views or who is of a different sexual orientation. Extra-curricular activities are not just for fun. They are an important part of what college has to offer for all students.


In college, each professor is free to establish his or her own grading policies. These are usually described in the course syllabus, and students are expected to know the rules and to be able to estimate their own grades. I learned recently that in some high schools, students who do not do an assignment receive a grade of "F" on it, but it is calculated as the equivalent of 50 percent. In college, this is rare. Grades are based on work assigned, not work completed, and a ZERO is a ZERO. If four items are assigned, and the student does two of them, that student will probably fail the course, no matter how high the grades on the completed work.


Over the past couple of decades, public schools have increasingly come under the control of politicians who believe in a focus on the rote learning of facts, rather than on learning how to learn. The result has been an emphasis on standardized testing and the accumulation of facts. Ironically, the more teaching is focused on factual learning, the fewer facts students actually learn. The fewer facts students learn, the greater the emphasis has been on test-driven teaching. It is a vicious circle. It makes college readiness difficult, because college focuses on the learning process and critical thinking. High school students are often focused on finding as many answers as quickly as possible, or on memorizing facts without necessarily understanding how they are connected to each other.

To overcome this, I encourage students to slow down, and to spend more time listening, reading, and writing. When listening, ask questions. After listening, try telling someone else what you heard. When reading, think about what the reading is for, who wrote it, and why they did so. Again, after reading something, try to explain it to someone else. When writing, make a draft, let it rest, and then write it again. Show it to a friend who is a good writer, or take it to your campus writing center. If the professor writes comments on your work, read those comments, and ask follow-up questions about them.


Some high school teachers (and a very small number of college professors) actually encourage the use of Wikipedia. Many consider this acceptable because the "facts" are very likely to be correct, and facts are all that matter for some purposes. In higher education, however, facts are not as important as ideas. Finding the answer to a particular question is not as important as learning how to go about finding that answer. Librarians are the real experts on these processes, and every college student -- and professor -- should become expert in the use of library materials. Some of these are in the physical building -- everything in the library has been selected by an information expert. An increasing number of librarian-selected materials are online. Some of them are available only to each college community through its library's web site (the Maxwell Library at BSC is excellent). Some are more generally available, such as the Librarians Internet Index, an excellent place to get valid information.

Return to my Not-the-13th-Grade page.
Any questions? Contact me at jhayesboh@bridgew.edu.
James Hayes-Bohanan, Ph.D.
Bridgewater State College