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College Is "High School, Part 2"

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Title Card: This is an Iowa State College production.
Tom Servo: Iowa State College, the high school after high school.

The transition from high school to college is typically one of the biggest transitions you'll make in your entire life. But not on TV. On TV, it's just high school without your mom and dad.

There are so many High School tropes that if a work relies on them, it's got real trouble once its characters graduate. To prevent them from graduating out of the story, the story follows them to college, but they still want to use the same tropes, hence why college seems to be exactly like high school. You've still got a stuck-up principal, only this time he's called the "dean" (and he might have fancier glasses). You've still got characters seeking a Wild Teen Party, only now they're part of Wacky Fratboy Hijinx. The students are still the same types of characters; you've still got Jerk Jocks, Valley Girls, and Hollywood Nerds, and you've still got youth-induced relationship drama. You've still got lockers into which to stuff the nerds, and you've still got bells and hall monitors to tell you when class is supposed to start.

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As with many tropes, this one runs a spectrum. In some cases, it's just a way of showing that people don't grow up that much the minute they turn into independent adults, or even explicitly describes college antics as something these guys had wanted to do all through high school but couldn't because of high school's authority figures. This is particularly common in "frat comedies" like Animal House. But on the other end of the spectrum, the authority figures are just as active in college as they are in high school, leading to such insanity as professors putting college students in detention for texting in class.

The reality, as always, is not as it is on TV, but the extent to which it differs depends on the institution. Most universities will acknowledge that their students are adults and treat them accordingly, so they won't micromanage them — i.e. they don't particularly care if you don't show up to class, because it's your life and your education, and if you want to waste it, go right ahead. But some professors might dock your grade for things like not showing up on time or using your phone in class. And while the teachers and administrators aren't usually going to get on your case for misbehavior, there usually is a separate campus police who'll do it. There's also, obviously, a big cultural divide between certain institutions; a college in the American South will worship its football players much like an equivalent high school might, but you won't see that happening at Oxbridge.

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Perhaps the biggest mistake of this trope is mistaking the level of intimacy in a university. Most universities are bigger than your average high school, meaning it's nearly impossible for everyone to know everyone else, and furthermore it's much easier to just avoid dealing with drama. The local Jerk Jocks aren't going to be stuffing the nerds into lockers (not that colleges have lockers outside maybe the gym) without someone totally unrelated to either of them stepping in, but that's the kind of thing you might see with this trope.

A Sub-Trope of Artistic License – Education. See also California University, for the phenomenon of a cast of high schoolers all going to the same college after graduating.


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Examples:

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  • An old Dell ad shows the "Dell Guy" 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 chalkboard, a punishment fitting middle school more than even high school.

    Film 
  • Animal House, being the Trope Codifier for Wacky Fratboy Hijinx, falls into this trap as it tries to showcase the irreverence of its characters. In doing so, it shows college professors grumbling about students not handing in papers — college professors won't grumble, they'll just give you a zero on the assignment and move on. They might grumble if you badger them for an extension, though.
  • Revenge of the Nerds: Despite having all the standard college stuff like dorms and fraternities, it feels more like a high school movie in its depiction of students and how they behave. Realistically, in a college setting, the nerds should actually be pretty high up on the totem pole — college can be an incredibly nerdy place, and the high-level math and science make for a nice place to show off. It's eventually inverted in the third film, when the nerds are shown in control of the fraternity — at least until a Jerk Jock alumnus sees what's happened to it and tries to change that.
  • The 2008 sex comedy College depicts college students doing nothing more than nonstop drinking and partying, with little concern for their studies. In high school, you might get away with an attitude like that by the skin of your teeth, but if you do that in college, you'll wash out before you know it. Parties among people who stay in college tend to be more the "unwind after a week of work and classes" deal.
  • Played with in Accepted, where the college in question is a fake college for people who couldn't get into a real one. Most of the "students" have a personality disorder of some sort and behave as if college really is just like high school.
  • 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.
  • Done nearly literally in Orange County, showing the protagonist going to college and seeing carbon-copy characters doing exactly the same things he hated about high school.
  • Legally Blonde depicts law school as "High School Part 3". Elle's Limited Social Circle is confined to maybe six people, two of whom aren't even students, when each incoming Harvard Law class has around 560 students, leading to about 80 per section. In that social circle, we see every typical high school personality type (jock, bitch, princess, nerd, go-getter, you name it). 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.
  • In Election, Tracy Flick discovers the hard way that this is true of the college she chose, when she hoped that she would find actual peers in terms of intellect and she would be able to stop being such a stand-out Academic Alpha Bitch. She eventually accepts that it's Lonely at the Top and she will continue to climb alone.
  • Candy Man focuses on grad students doing a thesis on the eponymous Candyman. The few scenes that take place at a university feature lockers, a bell, and a professor telling students it's time for lunch.

    Literature 
  • Discussed in Stephen King's Hearts in Atlantis, where one story's narrator comments that he and his friend were wishing college were more like high school without even realizing it. One reason why is that in college, if you fall behind in a lesson, it's much harder to catch up, something 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 did this so religiously when its characters graduated from high school, it even went so far as to have 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.
  • In 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. Things like romantic relationships seem to be a much bigger focus for them than their studies.
  • Beverly Hills, 90210 didn't know what to do when its characters graduated from high school, so it just continued almost the exact same storylines once they got to college.
  • Undeclared did a pretty decent job averting many of these conventions. While the show's main characters seem unusually carefree and unambitious for college students, there's always at least a couple like that in college. The biggest oddity is probably how there are no teaching assistants to be found.
  • On Friends, Ross sometimes works as a professor at NYU, ordinarily a prestigious and selective school. However, his students are usually depicted as immature dumbskulls like you'd see in high school. One episode has Ross deliver Girl Scout cookies to the dorms, whose residents call him "Cookie Dude!"
  • That's My Bush!: "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! But then, that's probably the point.
  • Played completely straight on Community, though this is likely just a byproduct of all the other weirdness on the campus. 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 New York Academy of Dramatic Arts fits the 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 process, it makes you wonder if anyone on the creative staff has ever been to college.

    Music 
  • The aptly-titled "High School Never Ends" by Bowling for Soup extends this viewpoint to post-college life.

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    Theater 
  • Wicked: Glinda and Elphaba are in college, despite Glinda singing about the Pop U LAAAR and Fiyero being the big man on campus. If you go by the book, they were all about 17 years old when they got to Shiz, so this might be chalked up to an oversight by the adaptation.

    Video Games 
  • The University of Grimsborough, in the Facebook hidden-object game Criminal Case: Grimsborough, contains several features one would normally associate with high schools, such as a parent-teacher association and a prom.
  • In Monster Prom, it's left very vague whether the school is a high school or college. The prom event, the look of the classrooms and cafeteria, and the general social situation are reminiscent of high school. But most of the love interests are in their early 20s, there's barely any mention of parents, and everyone freely goes around drinking, doing drugs, and screwing each other in a way that seems much more like college.

    Western Animation 

    Real Life 
  • Many American community colleges can be effectively called "High School Part 2" and are sometimes derisively referred to as the "13th grade". They often offer high school-level courses like math and English to adults who otherwise lack college-level academic skills, and many will offer GEDs or other high school equivalency testing for adults who never finished high school. This leads to a lot of structural similarities, including keeping track of attendance and the "feel" of the instruction. On the other hand, there's no dress code, no set schedule, and the instructors aren't usually as insistent on showing up as they would be in high school; stereotypes aside, students at community college typically want to make some effort to learn something.
  • Many American colleges used to be like this, with things like honor codes, curfews, and mandatory attendance. Most Americans didn't even go to college until after World War II, when the GI bill gave free tuition to returning soldiers, and numbers skyrocketed. But for about 20 years, colleges were seen as caretakers of their students, partly because back then the age of majority was 21, and partly because many of those students were kids when they were sent to war, and someone needed to look out for their wellbeing. Things started to change in The '60s, when students started to realize that they were adults but their colleges still controlled their lives, so they fought back against "the system" — this was a big aspect of the decade's famous counterculture. You still occasionally see honor codes among private universities, many of them with a religious charter.
  • It's true in some sense in the British Education System, but only semantically, as "college" in Britain is effectively a form of high school. What Americans call "college" is what Britons would call "university"; what Britons call "sixth-form college", Americans would call "12th grade".


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