College Is High School Part 2

Title Card: This is an Iowa State College production.
Tom Servo: Iowa State College, the high school after high school.
MST3K, The Home Economics Story.

The transition from high school to college is typically one of the biggest transitions you'll make in your entire life note . Abruptly gone are things like principal's offices, standardized school scheduling, and forced/required teacher compassion. Similarly, "popular crowds" are mostly relegated to certain dormitories. And bullying becomes Passive-Aggressive Kombat if anything. In college, no matter how athletic or smart you are, you're basically a nobody in the midst of a large and culturally-diverse student body. And, unlike in high school, your instructors and parents will not determine your general course of action. Your life plan is now completely up to you. On the plus side, it is easy to make friends by finding groups that match your interests, although cliques typically are much more flexible (if not entirely nonexistent) and people don't entirely define themselves by music or fashion, and thus lifelong outcasts can finally have a place where they belong.

Many television and movie writers, however, seem unusually clueless about how different college life really is from high school life despite the fact that most of them are college-educated themselves. Thus, they'll apply many popular high school tropes to university settings. Sometimes this makes sense, and a few, such as the Sadist Teacher, are if anything more plausible in a college setting. Far more often, however, the opposite is true, because they're either unrealistically below the maturity level of your typical college student, or simply not feasible within the general structure of university life. For example, a team of thuggish football players perpetually bullying a shy/awkward freshman is highly unlikely in a university setting since they will not live in the same building, attend the same classes, or have remotely the same schedule. Just as unlikely is a close-knit group of students having the exact same class schedule each semester.

One could argue that the reason why this trope exists is because most college-themed works are aimed at a high school audience (or, perhaps, because college students are imagined to look like high-school students thanks to Dawson Casting). And, since most people would be uncomfortable watching "naive" high school students (for example) engaging in raunchy/anti-social behavior, writers instead use a college setting, while implementing enough high school tropes that their works will still be relatable to the average high schooler. In other instances, it's simply a matter of not doing the research, especially if the author is himself/herself a high school student who has only the most vague idea of this whole "college" thing. Sometimes, however, this trope will be justified by depicting the work's respective university as a sub-par school where all the burnouts and slackers go. Some countries, particularly any that have ever been communist, actually do have universities that are like super high schools in that they lack freedom and choice; also, the students themselves will probably be a lot more innocent due to their education in general having been throttled (think of Cultural Revolution-era China, where no one was educated for several years until the schools were finally reopened) and thus will probably have the social skills of teenagers or even younger children.

This trope occurs in college-themed comedies a lot. Also, expect to see this trope in television shows starring a group of high schoolers that go off to college mid-series.


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  • In an old Dell ad, the "Dell Guy" was in a college lecture hall, plugging the latest product and eventually angering the professor. The bell soon rings and the professor has the Dell Guy stay after class to write sentences on the chalk board (a punishment fitting middle school more than even high school).

  • Averted in Good Will Hunting. Gus Van Sant took great care in making sure the mathematics used in the movie was both accurate and sufficiently advanced for MIT students.
  • Animal House. College professors don't typically grumble about students not handing in papers. An extension can sometimes be granted, depending on the circumstances and the professor, but in college, no one hounds you for not doing your homework. You just fail.
  • Revenge of the Nerds. Despite having all the standard college stuff (fraternities, dorms, etc.), it feels more like a high school movie with its depiction of students and how they behave. Realistically, in a college setting, the nerds should actually be looked up to for their intellect rather than ridiculed for it.
    • Though, this is inverted in the third film with the nerds in control at the beginning of the film until an alumnus of the Alpha Beta fraternity sees what's happened to the college and wants to bring it back to the way it used to be.
  • The 2008 sex-comedy College, which depicts college students as doing nothing more than non-stop drinking and partying (ie. having little concern for their studies, etc.). An attitude that might just barely get you by in high school but will definitely get you nowhere in college, and while hard partying does exist, it usually comes after five weekdays of grueling schoolwork and jobs.
  • Accepted: Actually Justified and enforced, as it is a fake college for people who couldn't get into any real college due to a variety of reasons, mostly personality disorders, and are acting like immature people because that's what they believe college to be like.
  • The Waterboy, in how it depicts both the Cougars and Mud Dogs as constantly picking on Bobby for no actual reason and depicts college campuses as being unusually close-knit.
  • Nearly literally in Orange County, shown by carbon-copy characters doing exactly the same things he hated about high school.
  • It's basically Part 3 for Elle Woods in Legally Blonde since she's in graduate school. Elle's Limited Social Circle is confined to maybe six people (two aren't even students) even though there are about 560 students in each incoming Harvard Law class, and Elle's particular section would have had ~80 of those. In that social circle, we see every typical high school personality type (jock, bitch, princess, nerd, go-getter...) When Callahan makes a pass at Elle it's almost like a Very Special Episode of a teen show.
  • In I'll Be Home for Christmas, the lead goes to a California university, yet everyone still uses hallway lockers to hold their belongings and jocks still stuff the nerds in said lockers.

  • Both averted and lampshaded in Stephen King 's Hearts in Atlantis: The first-person narrator of one story comments that he and his friend were wishing college were more like high school without even realizing it. Also, the narrator's sentiment that it is much more difficult to catch up in college once you've fallen behind is a lesson many a freshman has learned the hard way.
  • I Am Charlotte Simmons by Tom Wolfe. The students at the fictional Dupont University are part of a rigid pecking order with jocks at the top and brains at the bottom. Even the graduate students obsess over their place in these high school style cliques.
  • Elmer Gantry hints at an unbuilt version: Elmer's alma mater, Terwillinger College, is a heavily religious football school which adheres to the in loco parentis model, so it doesn't quite resemble either a high school or a modern college — but the narration mentions that it has "a standard of scholarship equal to the best high-schools."

    Live Action TV 
  • Boy Meets World, which even went so far as to have school teacher Mr. Feeny follow Cory and his friends to college.
  • Family Matters continued using the same stale "big jocks and snobby girls perpetually pick on scrawny nerd" trope when Laura, Urkel and Eddie went off to college, even though it made almost no sense by that time.
  • Saved By The Bell: The College Years: the main characters usually shared the exact same classes and still found the time to remain as close knit as ever.
    • Also, things like romantic relationships seem to be a much bigger focus for them than their studies.
  • Beverly Hills, 90210, for the exact same reasons as SBTB.
  • Undeclared did a pretty decent job averting many of these conventions. However, the show's main characters seem unusually carefree and unambitious for college students.
    • On the other hand, we've all known at least one or two students like that in college. So, in a sense, that may be Truth in Television.
    • One oddity about Undeclared: There are no teaching assistants on the show. Given that UNEC is clearly a large scale university with both Bachelor's and Master's degree programs, it's strange that we never see any TA's teaching some of the classes on the show.
  • Averted in Sabrina the Teenage Witch. When Sabrina moved on to college, the show introduced an entirely new supporting cast and wrote the new characters more like college students than high schoolers. Also, Sabrina had been something of a Teacher's Pet in high school and had some difficulty adjusting to the higher standards and indifferent professors.
  • On Friends, when Ross delivers Girl Scout Cookies to the NYU dorms, they refer to him as "Cookie Dude!"
    • Also, most of the students at NYU (where Ross eventually works as a college professor) seem unusually immature for college students, let alone students at a school as prestigious and selective as NYU.
  • That's My Bush!: The episode "A Poorly Executed Plan" has George's old college buddies come over for a visit. Let alone 50 year olds, these guys act immature even by HIGH SCHOOL standards!
  • Averted on the Freaks and Geeks episode "Noshing And Moshing." Neal's brother briefly comes home and discusses at the dinner table how different college is from high school (in a good way).
  • Played completely straight on Community, though this is likely just a byproduct of all the other weirdness on the campus (and in fact, the fact that Greendale has high school style lockers is frequently mentioned as evidence that it's a strange school).
  • On Glee, the fictional NYADA (New York Academy of Dramatic Arts) is this trope to the letter. We see Alpha Bitches picking on Rachel, and Kurt feeling just as alienated as before. He even flat-out calls college "High School Part 2." Coupled with the extremely unrealistic admission processes, it makes you wonder if anyone on the creative staff has ever been to college.
  • Averted in one episode of FamilyTies. Alex is given an F on a college term paper because the professor felt he was just regurgitating the arguments of well know historical figures instead of coming up with an argument of his own and backing it up with facts.
    • On the other hand, Alex is of the opinion that Grant College, where his sister Mallory attends, is High School Part 2.
  • Averted in the spin-off of The Worst Witch Weirdsister College, which relocated Mildred to college. Only two cast members from the parent show carry on with Mildred, and she has to deal with realistic student problems like learning to keep her dorm room clean, adjusting to the new environment and doing much better than Ethel - who had been the Academic Alpha Bitch and Teacher's Pet back in Cackle's.

    Newspaper Comics 

  • The play Wicked. Glinda and Elphaba are in college, despite Glinda singing about the Pop U LAAAR and Fiyero being the big man on campus.
    • However, going by the book, they were actually all about 17 years old when they got to Shiz - so it makes sense that a college filled with high school-aged students would be high school-ish.

    Video Games 
  • The University of Grimsborough, in the Facebook hidden-object game Criminal Case, contained several features one would normally associate with high schools, such as a parent-teacher association and a prom, among others.
  • Blackwell Academy from Life Is Strange does its best to blend both college and high school tropes:
    • On the college side: there are dorms, even used by people who come from the town where the academy is; Max is effectively taking a major in the niche subject of photography; she is taught by a world famous photographer, who you'd expect would want to teach at the university level.
    • On the high school side: Max's age (turned 18 just at the start of the school year) corresponds to the last year of high school; there's a popular clique which dominates most social events; the corridors are lined with lockers.

    Western Animation 

     Real Life 
  • Somewhat literally true for community colleges in the U.S., as many of them offer GEDs or other kind of high school equivalency testing. They also offer high school-level courses in subjects like mathematics and English for people who otherwise lack college-level academic skills. Community colleges are sometimes derisively called "13th grade", not to be confused with the actual "grade 13" that was formerly a part of Ontario high schools.
  • With the British Education System, college is literally this trope, because what many in the world call "college" is what British kids refer to as university. Think of college as another few years of high school in a different building.
  • YMMV, but this trope can be Truth in Television, depending on the individual. In particular, some small liberal arts colleges/universities in the US have been referred to by students as "high school all over again." It depends on the person and the college, but this trope does happen in real life.