8 differences between American and Spanish universities – FIXED

I have come across this article when reading Meneame, a really nice news aggregator (think of Digg, reddit) mainly geared towards a Spanish audience. This particular post explains a bunch of differences that an Spanish exchange student in Oklahoma finds when comparing Oklahoma University and Universidad Complutense de Madrid. To be fair, I would prefer not to extend my experience here to the whole US but as far as I know, there are a lot of similarities between top American universities. I am going to try to sum everything up so that people can get a grasp of what it really is to live in an American university. There are no words to explain how different it is and there is no way to try to comprehend to the fullest this if you haven’t been studying in one for a while, bear that in mind.

To provide a little bit of background to new readers my name is Daniel Lobato (daniellobato.me) and I studied Computer Science at Universidad Carlos III de Madrid (hereinafter UC3M) for 2 years before I came here. I had the enormous pleasure to be a part of the first class in UC3M that had studied according to the Bologna Process. Besides this, I studied in a bilingual group at UC3M which meant that all exams, classes and teaching material were in English. Most of the classes held around 20 people at most. Obviously that was a factor that really affected my student life a lot since it was a lot easier to get in touch with the professors (at least easier than in regular classes). Being in a bilingual group meant a lot for me, and it truly influenced me to an extent that I am sure that being in a regular class would not have changed me at all. A very particular fact that I liked was that most of my classmates had a better-than-average background both academic and life experience.

I have the great honor of being the recipient of a well demanded scholarship in UC3M to study one year abroad in an university pertaining to University of California system  depending on what you study. I am now in University of California at Irvine in the OC (eastern LA), public ivy, around top 20-50 for Computer science in the world depending on the ranking. Its CS department is especially outstanding partly because of the donations of Donald Bren. Definitely a great place to study and well reputed at least within the US. And Kobe Bryant comes to our gym to train!


Tuition fees for a technical degree in a public university in Spain (usually they are the best ones with the exceptions of private colleges Universidad de Navarra and Comillas) range from 700 to 1500 euros for on campus instruction. I have no idea what the fees are for online degrees. A year ago I remember Jesus Carretero, head of Computer Science department at UC3M mentioning that Spanish tuition is subsidized so that the real cost of our education would be around 7000 euros per year.

Tuition fees in UC Irvine are $13,970.00 a year, just for the tuition. If you are not from Cali tuition rises up to $36,848.00 a year. Most of the student have to live either on campus or off campus but close by the university. Housing is definitely cheaper than in Spain, living in a ~1000 feet apartment, 2 bedrooms 2 bathrooms, big living room with a kitchen and a patio, several pools, hot tubs, gym, laundry rooms and a lot more of outstanding facilities is only $485 a month, which is fairly decent especially for the Orange County which is one of the wealthiest areas of the US. Obviously I share room but even if I did not you can rent for slightly less than $1000 per month.

Tuition is basically paid through loans and grants. If you cannot afford tuition here usually you can apply for a Pell grant, Cal grant, Gates scholarship, etc… Most of the people I know here have some kind of financial aid aside from federal loans so it helps them to get out of college with a smaller debt.

National endowment for UC Irvine is around 370 million dollars. It is estimated that they earn around 270 million dollars in tuition fees, making it a total of  640 million dollars for a single university. There are probably other sources of income that I have not found, but this is the whole endowment for all public universities in Madrid.

Universidad de Alcalá, 92.724.427 euros; Autónoma, 152.845.856 euros; Carlos III, 94.357.170 euros; Complutense, 370.374.509 euros; Politécnica, 220.327.687 euros, Universidad Rey Juan Carlos, 83.898.953 euros.

The only one that gets close to UC Irvine in terms of income is Complutense and it has more than three times as many students as UC Irvine.


Putting it simple, schedules in UC3M take up all of your day in most of the cases. All classes are 1 hour and a half (WTF?) and you cannot expect to have much social life or work aside from classes if you want to attend them. This is dramatically different here. As an example of my schedule, last quarter I had to go to class 3 hours a day every Monday Wednesday and Friday. That is all. This quarter I am spending one hour everyday for lectures. They are only 50 minutes long but it takes some time to get to the place and sometimes you want to ask stuff to the professor after class so let us make it an hour. You may think that this is madness and students cannot learn properly through such a system. I dare you not. More free time means working experience, most of the students come out of the university having already done a couple of internships, research or part-time work. More free time means socializing, which can be potentially networking if you know who to hang out with. And it means more quality of life, less stress. When I studied in Madrid I barely had time to do anything aside from studying. Obviously I spend a lot of this free time studying, doing assignments, learning on my own. But having this amount of free time also gave me the opportunity to work on a start-up last quarter, it gave me the opportunity to exercise a little bit and right now I am doing undergraduate research, which is something unthinkable of in Spain.


Universities are thought as a place to learn in Spain. There is nothing you can do there besides going to the library, attending lectures and hanging around at the labs with your mates. As opposed to that, here universities are well thought as a place to provide a well rounded education. A lot of lab departments are seeking for undergraduate students to help them out. A lot of companies are willing to have a student working part-time with them. And even if you are a lazy bum and you do not want to work nor do research here, which is an outstanding experience by the way,  you still can join one of the several teams that the university has for a lot of sports, and compete among other state universities or even nationwide. I will cover this a little bit more in the bullet point ‘elitism’ but certainly there is an enormous amount of interesting, challenging and well paid software projects and we really lack this in Spain. Unfortunately, I think this applies to most of in demand jobs in Spain.


Honestly the difference is not that big with the bilingual group in my university as we had the chance to be in small groups. Nonetheless it is really remarkable that most of the students here go to classes where no more than 30 people per class, where you can easily ask questions and discussions are almost enforced instead of letting the students sleep through a dull lecture. However it really depends on the professor, which leads me to the next point.


There is a HUGE leap here. I cannot think of a single professor that I have met that has not have a resume tailored with world-wide accomplishments in their fields, an Ivy league alma mater, or similar impressive stuff. Getting a chair here can take up to ten years, which is basically the same amount of time that it could take in Spain, but the point is that they get them chosen on merit. Being the best friend, or even worse, being the lap-dog of some faculty member will lead you nowhere if you are not a game changer here. Also, money plays a crucial role here. They hired people like Michael Franz (inventor of the JIT compiler), David Patterson (arguably one of the world leaders when it comes to computer organization) and a handful of celebrities within academia that would not come here if salaries were not according to the market. Let us be fair here, taking an undergraduate course with these people will probably not differ that much from taking it in UC3M as the content will be similar. But the hints that one of the best people on his field can give you attending discussions and tutorships really differ a lot from the ones that a non-motivated teacher can give you. It is funny to see how the CS departments (not all of them but most of them) are a carbon copy of what is going on in the Spanish IT industry, etched 20 years ago. I do not really know how this works for the rest of the departments but from what I have seen there is even a worse difference as non-technical knowledge can really change from one university to the other.

Social life

Spain. Ibiza, Madrid, Barcelona.. definitely the place to be when it comes to great parties and socializing. First day of class in a Spanish university usually ends with some groups of people drinking a couple of beers in a bar and getting to know each other. That is definitely ingrained on us and I would not change it a bit. I have to add to this that a lot of people study in their own cities so hanging out with their high school friends is very common as well.

Still, this is about the differences so I would say that a main bullet point here is that most of Americans go to college somewhere in their own state but far away from their home. This means that they virtually know nobody there, so the best ways to socialize are either by joining fraternities and sororities, clubs, or just getting to know who you live with. Do not expect to meet people at class as most of the people will be very focused on what is going on today and will not pay any attention to a stranger that is distracting them from the main thing (the lecture). There are about 200 clubs solely on UC Irvine, so it is easy to find some people with your same interests or in similar situations as the one you are living. To be fair Americans are very outgoing and will always be up for some chit chat but developing a friendship is something that takes a lot more time than in Spain, where you can consider this guy sitting next to you with whom you have been hanging out with for a week a good mate.


Contrary to Spain, where studying in college can be considered relatively common and for sure not a warrant for a well-paid job, America is still rewarding their college graduates quite nicely. If you have been to a decent college, got a decent GPA, done a few internships, even though your knowledge may not be the best you can easily expect a well paid job ($3000 to $5000) for an entry level position in technical fields. In fact if you are really outstanding you may be earning more than that as soon as you graduate. Summer internships (for  CS undergraduate students) in San Francisco are paid ranging from 4000 to 5000 dollars a month which is something unthinkable in Spain. I have seen quite nice offers in LA for $3000. Getting a good university education here is something people really care about, and not making the best of it is seen as a real problem. A lot of engineering degrees in Spain usually take 7 or 8 years to a lot of people to finish them when they should take only 4 or 5. Such a waste of time is seriously seen as irresponsible here. I do not blame the people that have gone through this but definitely the universities are not providing the means to finish with this. Rich kids, poor kids, you can find them all, it all depends who you hang out with but what you certainly can expect is a majority of well-rounded educated human beings, whilst there is almost no filter for jackass getting in the Spanish university system. I am not saying everybody here is amazing but the filter they have to pass and the effort they have to put raises the bar a lot. Not to mention what the bar is in Harvard like colleges.


That is basically all I can think of as of today, drop a comment below or share this if you found it useful!

7 thoughts on “8 differences between American and Spanish universities – FIXED”

  1. Great post! Let’s get lunch sometime so UC Irvine can gain more swag in the Social Life category 🙂 Also, ICS Student Council really is a great place to network and make friends with people in CS. They really are awesome people and I gained a lot of value my 1+ year of involvement with them.

  2. Thank you for this post. I have to write a paper about the differences between university in Spain and in America so this was very helpful, well-organized information!

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