How universities are organized

Here's a pop quiz for you: what's the difference between Harvard College and Harvard University? I'll answer at the bottom.

But first here's a story. A few weeks ago I was at a conference for educational consultants, in a session about demonstrated interest. One of the presenters gave an interesting example from when he was an admissions officer at a major university in the Mid-West. He said a high school student flew in from the West Coast to do an on-campus interview. That's definitely a sign of demonstrated interest. However, the student ruined it when he said in the interview that he was really excited about studying business. This particular university has a well-known business school for people getting an M.B.A., but doesn't offer business as a major in the undergraduate program. And this, the presenter said, was a negative sign of demonstrated interest. The kid says he's really interested in the school, but doesn't even know they don't offer the major he wants?

And on one level, he's right. The student really ought to have checked to make sure they offered his major. I was 10% nodding along with that. But the other 90% was thinking how the heck would any regular person, especially a 17 year-old high school kid, know that a university with a top-ranked business school doesn't let you major in business? Who would think to check that? That doesn't make sense! I obviously wasn't there for the interview, but my gut tells me that the student's mistake wasn't in fake or mistaken demonstrated interest, but in not understanding how large universities are organized.

So let's go over that, first with some basics:

1. Each school is a little different; this isn't standardized. So I'm going to give an outline, and you can modify as necessary from there.

2. In 21st-century America, we pretty much use "college" and "university" interchangeably. That's ok. Trying to explain the difference, based on the organization of medieval schools like Oxford and Cambridge, will bring up at least as many exceptions as it will examples.

3. We're talking here about the basic idea of going to college after high school for a Bachelor's Degree. A Bachelor's Degree is often referred to as a four-year degree, even though it takes most people slightly longer than four years. Programs that grant Bachelor's Degrees are considered "undergraduate" programs, or "undergrad." Graduate schools are programs at universities that offer Master's degrees and Doctorate Degrees. You generally need an undergrad degree before getting a graduate degree. 

If you're looking at a small liberal arts college that only offers undergraduate degrees, then things are pretty simple. What you see is what you get. It may be divided into several different schools, like the School of Arts & Sciences and the School of Fine Arts, but their admissions and administration are usually centralized. You can look up what majors they offer and not worry that they're only available for graduate students--because they don't have graduate students. Likewise, you can feel confident that most of your courses will be taught by a full professor and not a grad student Teaching Assistant--because they don't have grad students. Generally you get accepted to the school and can then choose a major; you don't have to be accepted into the major separately. 

When you're working with a larger university that has both undergrad and graduate programs, things might get a little tricky.

For one, you may run into the problem that the student in the presenter's example had. Most people understand that you can't go directly to law school or medical school without getting a Bachelor's Degree first. But it may be that the university offers other graduate programs that aren't available at the undergrad level. So if you already have your degree, you can apply to a top-tier business school at the University of Chicago...but you can't major in Business for your undergrad there. At Georgetown University you can get a Masters in Sports Industry Management...but you can't major in Sports Management for your undergrad there. You have to make sure that a university offers your undergrad major, not just a graduate program.

At large universities, the admissions and administration are often less centralized. There are places where you may get accepted into the university, but not the individual program you're hoping to major in. For example, you can be accepted at U.T. Austin but denied for their engineering school. 

When you're looking at larger universities, especially larger state universities, make sure you understand how they're structured and make sure they are, indeed, right for you. Check to see if they offer majors you're interested in, and check if there are extra requirements to study in those majors. Get a sense of what classes are like, specific to your major. Read their website carefully and ask questions. 

So what's the difference between Harvard College and Harvard University? They're both in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Harvard College is the undergraduate program at Harvard University. But the undergraduate college is just a part of the larger university. There's also Harvard Business School, Harvard Divinity School, Harvard Medical School, The Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, and ten other graduate schools. Those are part of Harvard University, but are separate from Harvard College. Some day, you can be a student at the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation, which is part of the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, which is part of Harvard University. Luckily, you have time before you have to worry about that.

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