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  • Writer's pictureAdrienne Leinwand Maslin

Words We Hear in College

This post is co-authored by Susan Salowitz, Registrar Emerita, Middlesex Community College, Middletown, CT


Yes, Roxanne?

What’s tuition?

Tuition is the amount of money a student pays for instruction. It is . . .

Then what are fees?

That’s what a student pays for all kinds of other stuff.

What other stuff?

Whoa! Let’s take it slow. And why are you asking me all these questions about college? You’re only 12 years old!

Well, you always say it’s good to start thinking about college when you’re young, right?

Yes, I guess you’re right. In that case, let’s go back to tuition. Tuition is the amount of money a student pays for instruction. It’s based on the number of credits a student registers for and, at some colleges, the specific classes a student takes. Every college and university is different. At many, a full-time student will pay a fixed amount to take anywhere from 12 to 18 credit hours. Beyond that number of credit hours, there is often an additional tuition charge. Below 12 credit hours, a student is usually considered to be part-time and is billed for the exact number of credit hours they are registered for. Some courses, such as studio art classes or lab science classes, have additional fees associated with them to help pay for the extra equipment, supplies, and staff needed to run such courses.

Fees, on the other hand, are charged to cover additional services that a college provides. Fees go to support the technology services provided by a college, athletic facilities, student activities, library services, medical services, and sometimes others, depending on the college.

Thanks. Oh, wait! What’s this stuff about room and board and meal plans?

Happy to help, sweetie! Room and board refers to the residence hall and dining charges. A residence hall is where students live. Some colleges require all first year students to live on campus in a residence hall and to have a meal plan. Others do not. Some colleges, in particular, many community colleges, have neither residence halls nor meal plans. So, let me elaborate a bit.

Residence halls may be mix gendered or single sex. Many colleges have themed houses where students who share an interest, such as speaking French, may choose to live together in a residence hall or small house where the expectation is that the residents will speak French to each other, even when they’re not in class. It gives them more practice with the language and they become better speakers.

A meal plan requires students to pay for a whole semester’s worth of meals up front. The meals are eaten in the college’s dining hall(s). Colleges frequently have several meal plans that students can choose from. Most colleges have a super-duper meal plan that allows a student to eat 21 meals a week, have a number of snacks, have a couple of guest passes to bring friends or family into the dining hall without additional expense, order a limited number of times from Grub Hub, and perhaps get a cake on their birthday. From there, the plans are scaled back, perhaps allowing for only 15 meals a week or 100 per semester. Some colleges require freshmen to have a higher level meal plan—so they don’t get distracted from their primary purpose of being at college by having to shop and fix meals, or by eating out.

The dining hall is the place where students eat. Some colleges have many dining halls on campus while others only a few. Most colleges offer a wide range of food options and try to accommodate students who have special food requirements. This might include vegan and vegetarian, gluten free, kosher, and just plain healthy. Students who have special dietary needs should ask how these can be accommodated as they conduct their college search. Most colleges are now familiar with the wide range of dietary needs and do their best to meet those needs.

What else do I need to know about college?

There’s a lot but, remember, you don’t have to learn everything all at once and you don’t have to go it alone, Roxanne. But let’s try this. I’m going to give you a list of words that relate to college attendance so you will understand what they mean as you look at college websites. How’s that?


Non-profit vs. For Profit Colleges--When I discuss institutions of higher education in my blog, I am generally referring to non-profit colleges. Non-profit colleges are those that put revenue from tuition, fees, grants, and gifts back into the educational programs. Non-profit colleges also receive aid from the federal government and state governments. For profit colleges put their tuition and fee revenue into earnings for the company that owns the college or for stakeholders. For profit colleges typically offer an occupational-based curriculum and frequently conduct classes online.

Undergraduate/Graduate StudentThis blog posting is meant to address issues of undergraduates but I’d like to take a minute to explain the difference between undergraduate and graduate degrees. Students who are seeking associate’s or bachelor’s degrees are considered to be undergraduates. Associate degrees are awarded to students who attend a two-year or community college, typically upon the completion of 60 credits and the requirements in their major. Many of these students would then go on to a four-year institution to earn their bachelor’s degree. A bachelor’s degree is typically awarded after a student has completed 120 or 180 credit hours (see Quarter/Semester below). An undergraduate program is meant to provide a student with the breadth afforded by a liberal arts and sciences curriculum as well as the depth of a specific major. A graduate student is a student who is going for an advanced degree such as a master’s or doctorate. These degrees require in depth study in a particular discipline and require an undergraduate degree for entry. The other type of degree is a professional degree in fields like medicine or law.

Quarter/Semester—Institutions of higher education divide their academic year into terms, which is the length of time that a class is in session. Depending on the length of the term, it might be called a quarter, a semester, a block, or something else altogether. The semester system is the most common method of dividing up the year. Colleges and universities that operate on a semester system typically have two terms—a fall and a spring term—of about 15 weeks each and a summer session of about 10 weeks. Some also have a winter session that may be about three weeks and requires very intensive study. Colleges that operate on a semester system typically require 120 credit hours of coursework to graduate with an undergraduate degree. Those that operate on a quarter system break their academic year into four quarters of 10 weeks each with short breaks in between. Students usually attend during three of the four quarters each year. These colleges usually require about 180 undergraduate credits to graduate. While it typically is not something that drives a prospective student’s choice, there are advantages and disadvantages to each system. For example, a course that runs for only 10 weeks can sometimes feel rushed. No sooner does the class begin than it is time to write research papers and take final exams. On the other hand, a class that is not enjoyable is over sooner. And, a student who is doing poorly has greater opportunity to boost their GPA (see below) because of the greater number of classes they are taking.

Credit hour—According to the New England Commission of Higher Education, one of six regional accrediting agencies for higher education in the United States, “the academic credit has provided the basis to measure the amount of engaged learning time expected of a typical student enrolled not only in traditional classroom settings but also laboratories, studios, internships and other experiential learning, and most recently distance learning. (” This is how it translates into practice: a student who registers for a three-credit course will be spending three hours in the classroom each week. In addition, it is the expectation that the instructor will assign the equivalent of six hours of related work to be done outside of classroom time. Therefore, a typical three-credit course requires about nine hours worth of work—both in class and out of class—each week. A student who is taking five, three-credit courses, will be engaged in academic work for 45 hours each week. That’s just like a full-time job!!

Liberal Arts and Sciences—The liberal arts and sciences constitute a broad range of subjects including English, history, chemistry, art, mathematics, philosophy, economics, theater, and many more. All students who earn an undergraduate degree take some courses in the liberal arts and sciences to expose them to a broad range of knowledge, ideas, ways of thinking, and research methodology. Many students choose to major in a liberal arts and sciences discipline while others prefer to major in a field that is more career-oriented such as business, nursing, teacher education, or others. Still, regardless of major, all students are required to experience the liberal arts and sciences.

Core competencies—Most colleges have a set of core competencies that, by virtue of the curriculum, will be met by the students who successfully complete their programs and graduate. While core competencies may vary from college to college, they generally look something like this:

Critical thinking skills

Oral and written communication skills

Quantitative reasoning skills

Scientific inquiry

Information technology skills

Aesthetic understanding

Cultural difference

Ethical judgment

Community engagement

Major—This is the area in which a student will concentrate and achieve a more extensive level of mastery. Academic departments typically specify the courses one needs to take to complete a major in that discipline.

Minor—This also reflects a concentration but is not as extensive as a major. Again, like the major, there are specific courses that comprise a minor in a particular discipline.

Online/on-ground/hybrid—Most colleges offer both on-ground and online education. On-ground refers to an environment where students and instructor(s) come together in the same physical space—usually a classroom but it may be an art museum, observatory, laboratory, etc—and learn together. Online refers to a learning environment where students learn remotely, away from any type of shared physical space. Students who learn online frequently do it from the comfort of their own homes, library, or office space. Online learning requires a computer and a solid internet connection. Students typically read and respond to material the instructor has put “online” using a specified learning platform that has been selected by the college such as Blackboard or Canvas. During the Covid pandemic, when schools and colleges were closed, many students who did not have adequate internet at home studied in their cars in parking lots to take advantage of the internet provided by their schools or town. On-ground learning occurs in a synchronous fashion while online learning is typically, although not always, asynchronous (see below). Hybrid courses are those that meet both on ground and online. Usually a course might meet once a week on ground—in a synchronous fashion—and then have an online component that can be completed during the same week but asynchronously, at a time of one’s own choosing.

Synchronous/Asynchronous—Synchronous learning occurs all at the same time, as in a typical classroom environment, while asynchronous learning can occur at any time that is convenient for the student within certain time frames based on due dates for assignments.

Registration—This is the act of registering for classes. This is typically done online these days but many colleges still allow students to bring registration forms into a Registrar’s Office to register. If you do not “register” for a course, you will not be able to sit in the class or receive a grade. It is important to see your advisor prior to registering so you know you are taking the right classes and meeting all necessary requirements. And, it is very helpful to register early. Courses typically have a maximum number of students and if you want to be sure you get a certain class you either want or need, you will want to register before all the seats are taken.

Mom! Miss Edna told us that her friend, Jupiter, couldn't take astronomy with her because he didn't register early enough and the course filled up!

Well, there you go!

ID Number/Card—Every student is given a specific identification number and an ID card. The number allows the student access to their own “file” in the institutional database. This file typically contains academic information such as the courses a student has taken, the courses they are currently registered for, the number of credit hours of each course, the progress a student is making towards their degree, and the student’s grades. It also contains financial information such as tuition payments and financial aid awards. The ID card provides a student access to buildings, the gym, the dining hall, library, etc. The ID card carries information about meal plans, laundry accounts, etc. and can be used to pay for a variety of on-campus items. At some institutions, ID cards are a physical card about the same size as a driver license or credit card. Other colleges give students the option to have a digital card that students carry on their phones.

Full-time/Part-time—A student who takes 12 or more credits is considered to be full-time for federal financial aid purposes. Fewer than 12 credits indicates part-time student status. One tricky thing, however. While a student might be full-time because they are taking 12 credits, at many colleges 12 credits will not be enough to allow them to graduate within a two-year or four-year time frame. So, if students expect to graduate within this time frame, they will need to take 15 credits per semester.

Progress to Degree—This may have different names at other colleges but essentially, it is a way of determining, usually visually, the courses a student has taken and whether they apply to the degree program for which the student is registered. A student can easily see if they still need to take other requirements towards their degree. Some students have more latitude than others when choosing courses; it depends on the program or major they are in. But all students need to consider whether the courses apply to their major or to other requirements the college might have and choose accordingly. And, it's best to do this with help from an advisor.

Advising—At most colleges, every student is assigned an advisor. This person is typically a faculty or staff member who is familiar with the curriculum and the college’s requirements. This person helps students plan their academic program and also helps with other issues such as acclimating to college or helping a student determine what office to go to to solve a particular problem. Advisors are very helpful and students should always make it a point to meet with their advisor at least once a semester.

Grade point average—We sometimes refer to grade point average as a GPA. Colleges typically assign letter grades as a way of indicating a student’s performance in the class. Each grade has a point value that, most frequently, is on a scale of 0, in cases where a student failed a course and earned an “F,” to 4, where a student earned an A. If a student earns an A in each of five courses, the student would have a GPA of 4.0 (pronounced “four point oh”). The number is an average of the grades of all classes taken. Plus or minus grades, such as a C+ or A- have point values as well and are figured in to the final GPA. Students will have a semester GPA and what is known as a CGPA or cumulative grade point average. This is the GPA for all classes taken throughout all semesters at the college.

Academic Probation—When a student’s GPA drops below a certain point they may be placed on academic probation. This gives the student the opportunity to bring their GPA back up to an acceptable level as determined by the college. If the GPA is not brought back up to standard within a certain amount of time the student will most likely be dismissed from the college.

Add/drop Period—The add/drop period is the time during which students may add additional classes to their schedule or drop a class or two from their schedule. Adding and dropping classes must be done within a certain time frame for a number of reasons. When adding a class, it is important to do it before too much material has been taught. Missing even one class can put a student behind in terms of missed material and assignments. Most colleges believe it is detrimental to student success for a student to add a course after the first week or two. Dropping classes after the official add/drop period results in the designation of “W” on the student’s transcript. (See Withdrawal below) And, there might be financial ramifications to dropping a class. In either case, it is important to understand college policies and bounce these decisions off an academic advisor before adding or dropping a class.

Withdrawal—In the context of higher education, a withdrawal typically means that a student has dropped a class after the official add/drop period. Usually a student will withdraw from a class when they don’t believe they are doing well. Instead of receiving a poor letter grade, or even an F, which will negatively affect a student’s GPA, the student may choose to withdraw. The student will have a “W” designation on their transcript which will not affect their GPA. It is inadvisable to withdraw from too many classes as too many “W’s” may not look good to a future employer, could result in being placed on academic probation, and there may be ramifications regarding financial aid. The federal government will only provide financial aid to those students who are making adequate progress towards their degree. Even for students not receiving financial aid, students typically receive only partial tuition reimbursement or possibly none, depending on the college’s policies. And, the student will have to either retake the withdrawn course or take another course in its place, which will have to be paid for.

Accreditation—Higher education in the United States has a process called accreditation. Through this process, regional accrediting agencies review an institution’s policies and practices as measured against a set of standards. It is through this process that accrediting agencies assure the public of an institution’s quality. Accreditation is a peer review process that is entirely voluntary for institutions of higher education. However, if a college or university is not accredited, its students are not eligible for federal financial aid funds.

Orientation—This is an activity for students new to the college. At some colleges orientation is for a couple of hours and at others, several days. Still at others, orientation is online. Orientation helps students learn about the college including the location of buildings, specific college policies including those dealing with sexual harassment and assault, safety issues, the use of and policies surrounding technology, and provides a mechanism for students to begin making friends and feel they belong at the college. At many colleges, new student orientation is mandatory. If not, the decision to attend new student orientation is one of the best decisions a student can make.

Student Activities—Sometimes referred to as co-curricular and extracurricular activities, these are in addition to taking classes. Co-curricular activities are those that supplement the curriculum a student is taking. An example might be a Finance Club where students can implement some of their classroom learning, if they are taking business, finance, and economics classes, in a less formal way. Of course, usually anyone is welcome to participate. Extracurricular activities are typically those that are fun but not necessarily classroom related such as varsity or club sports, student government, or clubs for fun and relaxation such as a Chess Club or Frisbee Club.

Varsity and Club Sports—Most colleges and universities have both varsity and club sports. Varsity sports are those that require a certain—typically quite high—level of ability. Students who play varsity sports represent their college as they compete against other colleges in their athletic division. Some colleges recruit students who have great ability in a particular sport to play for that college’s team and offer those students athletic scholarships. Other colleges allow any student to try out for a varsity team at the beginning of each academic year. Colleges participate in the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) at either the Division I, II, or III level. Division I is the most competitive, then Division II. The least competitive is Division III. Club sports are typically available to anyone who wishes to participate. Club sports provide students with opportunities to learn a new sport or play a familiar sport with others at the college. Club sports also provide opportunities for competitive play through either an intramural tournament (i.e. only students within the college) or by playing clubs from nearby institutions.

Dean of Students/Chief Student Affairs Officer—So forgive me, but I am going to indulge myself here. Yes, this was my title during my years at Middlesex Community College (Middletown, CT), but I do think it’s important to mention this for a moment. Every college has someone like this. The titles may vary slightly but there is someone in charge of student affairs. If a student is having a problem with something or someone and they don’t know where to go for help, they should go to the Dean of Students. Sometimes, for those not familiar with college campuses and how they work and who is in charge of what, the Office of the Dean of Students can be a friendly, supportive place where the dean or the office staff can help a student locate the help they need. The dean will frequently run interference by placing a phone call to the correct office explaining that a student will be coming by with a problem that needs attention. While it was always my expectation that everyone who works at a college be a supporter of students, it is the most intimate aspect of the Dean of Students’ job. Students should never hesitate to ask for the help they need.

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