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All Universities Are Not Created Equal

If you have signalled that you are exploring university studies, your inbox will likely be flooded with promotional material from dozens of colleges and universities. It can be a bit overwhelming.

Receiving countless brochures, emails, and postcards, you may note one surprising thing: they all look the same on paper. Most university communications use similar stock photos of happy students on campus, including quotes from students on how pleased they are to study there, showcase registration and job placement stats that aim to impress, and claim that they are a top institution. Hundreds of universities present themselves as…well, the same.

You may wonder, “How different can these schools be”? Is deciding to attend one university over another as simple as a coin toss?

No! The value of a degree or certification from one university is not the same as that from another.

Beyond academic reputation, key distinctions between universities must be considered and evaluated to make the right personal choice for your unique learning requirements. Some of the differences between universities may not be obvious from what you see in the prospectuses. We’re going to take you through the main ones so that you know how to compare them.

Student Mix

Who you attend school with will have as much impact on your future as where you attended school and what you studied. If you’re considering full-time undergraduate studies and want to be surrounded by peers in a similar situation and stage in life, then a more traditional 4-year education may suit you better.

But what if your circumstances are not typical? If you are a part-time student balancing work and studies, you’ll likely want to be in the company of others who share your situation. Many adults are returning to school after years in the workplace to change career directions or elevate their skill sets through certifications. If you’re one of them, studying at a university like Singapore University of Social Sciences (SUSS) with a diverse mix of students – with a wide range of age groups, full and part-time status, and real-life experiences – may be exactly what you need for the richest learning experience.

Academic Workload

You may be surprised at how much academic workload could vary according to the university you select.  For example, at an Ivy League university, you may be expected to write two essays per week while other universities expect no more than two essays per semester. The academic quality may not differ as much as the academic rigor. Be realistic about the requirements; if you are working part-time, or a professional wanting to certify a new skill set, does the university provide scheduling and online options that suit your work demands?

It’s essential to find out how much work will be expected of you at each of the institutions you are considering before applying. If you don’t, you might find yourself under-challenged or overwhelmed.

Teaching Quality, and Accessibility

Despite the “sameness” of university brochures, there can be significant variations in the quality of teaching you receive at different universities. Check out the CVs of those who will be teaching you. Explore where the faculty members received their degrees and what research papers they may have published. Find out what percentage of the teaching staff is tenured versus contract; the former can indicate a dedication to the area of study and the university itself that is hard to replicate with constantly changing contracted lecturers. On the other hand, the latter could also indicate a myriad of experiences from practitioners who can relay up-to-date industry knowledge to students.

What may be just as important as the quality of the teaching staff is the quantity of time you will spend with them. How accessible will your lecturers be to you? Many large research universities focus more on having their faculty publish material (articles, research papers) than teaching the students. Know this upfront, lest you arrive at a class supposedly led by an eminent professor, only to learn that 90% of her classes will be taught by teaching assistants. Ask whether the faculty offers regular “open hours” when students go to their office and ask questions or request a tutorial. Compare faculty-to-student ratios; the lower the number of students per lecturer, the higher the level of interaction you can expect with your teachers.

The School’s Focus on Life Experiences

Some universities still believe the best way to learn is through lecturing and reading. If you believe that you can learn successfully in this traditional way, great! But increasingly, more students expect real-world and applied learning that applies concepts learned in the classroom in actual life situations.

Internships, apprenticeships, volunteer programmes, and lab learning are offered to apply learning to real-life settings. Students find these hybrid learning approaches to be more grounded, more career-oriented, and more engaging than 100% classroom learning. Do you prefer a textbook or a real-world approach? The universities you consider will winnow down considerably once you answer this question.

Your Career Outlook

Your career prospects may differ greatly depending on the university you put on your CV. Before you enroll, you need to know that different schools are highly regarded in different areas of study. This can be easily uncovered online by searching “Best university programmes in ______”. 

Be sure to compare various rankings to get a comprehensive view of the school’s position. For example, if a school you are evaluating is highly regarded in a field such as “cybersecurity”, your chance of being considered when applying for a cybersecurity position will increase if your resume lists a degree from the school. You should also compare graduate employment rates across your university prospects. Focus not only on the percentage of graduates that are placed but also on how quickly students find jobs after graduation. Find out what internship and career placement support the school offers its students too.

Learning Modalities – In Class, On-Line, or Hybrid

An increasingly mobile population, not to mention the impacts of the pandemic, led most schools to adopt online or distance learning opportunities. The benefits were obvious: students could access classes from any location, guest speakers could be invited in from around the world and working students could participate in class without leaving work and heading to campus.

More sophisticated schools began offering on-demand learning. With this, not only could students attend class from anywhere, but they can also do so at any time. This innovation became particularly important to part-time students, working students, and older adults trying to balance school life with home life.

Today, the most forward-thinking schools offer hybrid learning, enabling students to leverage and “mix” classroom, online studies, lab settings, and virtual study group gatherings that fit the way they learn and live. If you demand flexibility in scheduling and modality, make sure the school you’re considering can deliver.

University Location

The city in which the university is located can have a major impact on your overall university experience. If the university is in a big city, you will obviously have a more urban experience. While you may not be able to enjoy the beauty of a sprawling tree-lined campus, you will be exposed to more volunteer, internship, and apprentice opportunities in a large city, as well as more career opportunities when you near the end of your studies. If you are applying for jobs in the same city as the university you attended, the school’s reputation and quality of candidates will be well known by hiring companies. Finally, if you’re already working full/part-time or intend to live at home during school for financial reasons, then selecting a university that enables commuting will make balancing school, career, and home life easier.


University Philosophy

University philosophy refers to the atmosphere and culture of a university, which are harder to distinguish. Different universities develop a reputation for certain things that attracts certain kind of students. Some may have a reputation for excelling in sports which draws collegiate athletes and student fans, while others may be well-known for their programmes in technology and the sciences, thus drawing more technical students to it.


Another important consideration is the school’s purpose – its stated reason for being – and its promise to its students. Some schools make it obvious that their goal is job-readiness, while some tout their purpose as driving innovation breakthroughs.

A newer generation of universities considers it their purpose to shape students’ whole life experiences with a focus on the social sciences. Singapore University of Social Sciences (SUSS) is one such school at the forefront in this space. The focus of SUSS is quite simply, to be the leading university for social good. Its purpose is to inspire lifelong learning and transform society through applied social sciences.

When you choose a university like SUSS, the emphasis won’t solely be on credits and CV creation. Instead, to create well-rounded future talents who are professionally competent, socially conscious, and lifelong learners, this school focuses on three areas of life-readiness: Head, Heart, and Habit.

So, you need to decide whether you are looking for a university that completes a transactional goal such as job readiness and certification attainment, or a university that takes a holistic approach to immersive, life-long learning.

Let Your Desired Future Help You Decide

David Montesano, founder of the consulting company College Match wisely said: “College is just a tool to help you achieve your life goals.”
  • If your goal is to land a career upon graduation, make sure the school you pick trains you with the foundational skills in the classroom and equips you with practical applications through real-life experiences like internships, work collaborations, and apprenticeships.
  • If your goal is a career switch later in life, focus on schools that offer you flexibility in your re-entry to academia. This should include flexible schedules, night and weekend classes, and a wide range of online learning tools.
  • If your goal is grad school, investigate which colleges produce healthy numbers of masters and doctoral students.
  • If your goal is to best equip yourself to be a contributing, constantly evolving talent in your community, then look towards schools like SUSS which are experts in the social sciences.

As we’ve seen, universities differ in so many ways, even if they look the same on paper. That’s why it’s important to dig deeper and go beyond the colourful brochures. Tour universities on visitation days. Ask to speak with faculty members while you’re on campus or sit in on a class. Investigate the immersive experiences such as volunteer programmes, internships, or apprenticeships they offer. Talk to the enrolled student about their experience. Visit the school’s admissions office and challenge them to highlight the resources you can expect.  

Being equipped with a deeper insight into what you seek and knowing the complete set of experiences a school can offer will help you find a university that best fits you.

“I’m not sure what I’ll do, but— well, I want to go places and see people. I want my mind to grow. I want to live where things happen on a big scale.”

― F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Ice Palace and Other Stories

 

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