College in the US vs. Europe

Before making the decision to leave my friends and life in Germany behind in order to attend college in the United States, I had to actively contemplate on whether that would be wise. In fact, one of the questions I’m asked the most since being at the University of Rochester is, “Why would you come to study in the US if you can study in Germany for free?”

This blog post will give you an insight into the differences between studying at a typical US college/university versus studying at a typical university in Europe. As I applied to schools in both the US and Scotland, I will mainly compare US colleges with universities in Scotland and Germany (as that is my home country). When reading this, remember that there are always exceptions to what I refer to as typical for a university in a particular country.

Flags representing the home countries of international students in Wilson Commons

Flags in Wilson Commons representing the home countries of international students



1. (Undergraduate) degrees and how they’re structured
At most US universities, students pursue a broad academic experience with the aim to specialize in a certain area at the end of their undergraduate studies. It is a good system for those who leave high school with a broad idea of what they want to study, but not so much determination on what direction they want to go within a subject. By taking clusters of classes at Rochester in particular, one might discover a hidden interest in a new area, which creates the opportunity to either change majors or change your focus of study.

What’s a cluster? A set of three related courses in one of the divisions of learning: natural sciences, social sciences, and humanities. Rochester students must take clusters in the division(s) not already represented by their major. So, if you plan to be an economics major (social sciences), you must complete clusters in the natural sciences and the humanities.

In Europe, particularly in the UK and Germany, the system is structured differently. Students choose a more specified area of study even before they enroll in university—you apply for a specific degree programme. In the US application process, I just named a field of study I was interested in on my application. But in the UK application process, I had to write an essay on why I wanted to enroll in a particular programme.

Here at Rochester, I want to study international economics. I will take the classes required to obtain an economics major, and anything beyond that is my free choice (remembering that I do need to take clusters). In Scotland, I would have enrolled in the international economics degree programme, which is pre-structured and only leaves me some freedom as to what within the area of international economics I would want to focus on.

Conclusion: Both systems have their pros and cons. Whether one or the other system is better depends on the student and what he/she wants out of their undergraduate education.

2. Campus (life)
A big difference between a typical US college and a classic European university is the campus size and thus the way the campus is structured.

In the US, many colleges are suburban or even in remote places. That is why most US colleges have one central campus where academic facilities, faculty, student life, and residential life come together. At Rochester, most students live on campus and almost all academic facilities are on campus also (the Eastman School of Music and the Medical Center are nearby). That makes everything easily accessible for students and doesn’t require any means of transportation other than your feet.

In Europe, that is often a bit different. Most countries are very densely populated, so most universities are inside a city rather than somewhere in the countryside. In many cases, universities are very integrated in their city. While there is often a central campus that comprises most academic facilities, many faculties or sports facilities are spread across the city. It is also not as common for students to live in university-owned residences (which are also often elsewhere in the city). The typical university life would therefore include living in the city, taking public transport (or your bike), and being much more independent.

Conclusion: Just as with the differently structured degrees, both ideas of college life have their pros and cons. While having everything on campus saves a lot of time, living inside the city might help you become a more independent person.

3. Tuition
When it comes to tuition and living costs, the two systems are very different. In the US, college is usually very expensive. In Germany and many other western, central, and northern European countries, tuition is free (at least for nationals and often EU citizens). Scotland doesn’t charge tuition for EU students, which is why I applied there. The only costs students have to cover are living expenses. But if a German student cannot afford their living costs, the government has a support system that covers all or part of those costs. The system is in place to allow everyone who graduated from high school to have the opportunity to access higher education, regardless of their socio-economic background. There are, however, also exceptions in Europe. England, the most popular European study destination for international students, has very high tuition fees for all their students.

In the US, most students get some form of financial aid to help afford their cost of attendance. My family’s contribution is basically equivalent to the living costs I would have to pay in a German city. In England, scholarships are rare and there is definitely no comparable financial aid system in place.

Conclusion: US colleges become affordable through financial aid and student loans, while Europe is cheaper for Europeans and England is expensive for basically everyone (obviously there are exceptions in England as well).

4. Classes
One big difference between most US colleges and a public European university is the size. Many universities in Germany have 10,000–40,000 students, while a typical US college appears to be smaller than that. This is one of the reasons why the student-faculty ratio tends to be much higher at German universities than it is at smaller colleges here. Another reason for is that German public universities are tuition-free. German lectures are often packed with hundreds of students, which doesn’t allow for much interaction with the professor. When German universities first became tuition-free, the influx of students was so high that many lecture halls didn’t have the capacity, so students had to watch a live stream of the class in local cinemas.

At colleges in the US, many classes have sizes like in high school. At Rochester, most students experience a mixture of larger lectures with up to 100–150 students and smaller classes with 5–30 students. It pretty much depends on the subject and the level of the class. Elementary and introductory classes tend to be taught in lecture halls, while more specific, complicated courses are often taught in smaller classrooms.

Conclusion: Large European student populations means more exposure to real city living, while smaller US student populations means smaller class sizes and access to professors.


Your life becomes more independent when you attend a US college. Still, US students don’t need to worry too much as they most likely live in a safe campus environment where they don’t need to clean the bathroom in their residence hall, cook all their meals, or bring their trash to the dumpster, for example. In Europe, life becomes much more independent at university. More freedom is definitely good for your development, but you can allot more time toward academics and social life when other duties have already been taken care of.

About the author

Bastian Lehmann

I'm a member of the Class of 2020 and I am planning to major in economics. I come from Germany and thus far I have never lived abroad, so attending the University of Rochester in New York is an exiting experience that I will gratefully share with you here. When I'm not in class or busy studying, I really enjoy "making" music. I play the piano, I write songs and I love to sing as well. I am a member of the YellowJackets a cappella group. So far this is the only extracurricular activity I am involved in as it takes around 7 hours of rehearsal (sometimes more) a week plus all the gigs we have!


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  • Thanks for your great information and insights! They’re very helpful.

    BTW, do you happen to know any Americans who have taken advantage of programs in Germany that welcome American students to live in your country for several months and participate in a research project, presumably at a German university?

    Wishing you all the best,
    NB Downes

  • My daughter wanted to study in Germany, she had one huge problem she is fluent in English and Spanish but only had one German class in high school. She was accepted to a very good University in Montreal. The Canadian approach to higher education is more like European countries. So unlike US Universities you must take most of your classes in the field of study you have chosen. She does expect to graduate with one major , one related minor, and one somewhat related minor. Your assessment of the differences in the approach to study in Germany, US ,and UK was very close to what she related to me.
    In Georgia ( formerly part of USSR) students go from high school directly to six years of medical school, and all classes are taught in English. It is my understanding that this is common throughout the former Soviet Union countries and Eastern european countries. It is logical to teach in English because the best and most widely used medical text books are in English. The books are very expensive to make and translating them into multiple languages would be extremely expensive.

    • Canada’s university system is more similar to the US than Europe. In Quebec, they follow a slightly different system than the rest of Canada. Students graduate from high school in the 11th grade (age 17). They then go to a junior college for the Grades 12 and 13. The 12th grade is the same as in the US and the 13th grade is the same as the first year of college in the rest of Canada and the US. After that, they go to a university for three years, where by then, they will be specializing in one or two specific programs.

      The other provinces in Canada follow the same system as the US – general education requirements, electives, and options for minors and double majors.

  • European colleges offer education of the same quality as US colleges at a fraction of cost. If you don’t want to spend the next 5 years of your life under student debt. Go for a European college

  • How would you describe the difference between Common app essay you write to us uni and motivation essay ( or purpose statement ) for European uni ?

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