Why college harder than high school academically?

Why? Let’s say for example, you attended one of the more competitive secondary schools in the world. Raffles in Singapore, the high school associated with Fudan University in ShanghaiKorean Minjook Leadership Academy, Thomas Jefferson in Fairfax, Exeter in New HampshireEton in the UKHenry IV in Paris etc. And let’s say you came out near the top of the class at any of these schools or one of several hundred (maybe several thousand) around the world. If you did this then you worked tirelessly. You not only studied but you also were involved in a whole host of activities. You would likely do things over the summer to supplement your learning and your applications to highly selective schools. Your days were structured and you were going non-stop from early in the morning until late at night. If you were a student like this then I am not sure how much more challenging your university experience would be.

On the other hand, students who I have just described typically continue to try to do as well as they did in secondary school at the university they attend. If they have enrolled in one of the more selective universities in the world then they will be among students who have often achieved as much or more than them in their own secondary school. Many top secondary school students who attend elite universities are stressed out (read the book “Excellent Sheep” for more on this). They are trying to be at the top of a group of high achievers and this can be even more challenging.

At the same time, some students who have attended schools like this approach university differently. Instead of trying to be perfect they try to learn as much as they can in and out of class. They take courses they love; they join things because they want to. They do well but are not worried too much about following the group that wants to be recruited for Goldman and Google. Universities give students much more freedom to choose how to live than those secondary schools that are filled with high achievers.

There is also a small group that is burned out after secondary school, or who have had parents pushing them through each day. Some of these students go on a mental vacation at college. It’s possible to float through 4 years these days without doing much or learning much (over one third of students graduating from university have no increase in critical thinking skills according to research cited in the book “Academically Adrift”).

At the other end of the spectrum,  there are students who attended high schools that do not challenge students at all. Students at these schools  (often rural or inner city) who get in to highly selective schools often struggle to stay up with their classmates. They have not had great teachers and others who push them to learn. They often don’t have the same rigor of classes to choose from. They have to work much harder than they did in high school if they hope to do well.

Most people don’t attend schools at the ends of the spectrum. They go to secondary schools where the top 10% of the students work very hard and after that there is a drop off in terms of the workload that students have to do. At places like this there are some who may not have to work as hard when they go to a reasonably good college or university and there are others who decide to try to do much more than was expected of them in high school. In other words it is a mix. For some students,  high school will be harder and for some it be harder at university.

The most important thing to remember is that each student is different. A student can float through college or high school. Or a student can work every waking hour. It’s far more about what is going on inside the student’s mind that will determine which experience is harder.

Source: Parke Muth, Served as faculty member and dean for 28 years at top 25 university.