I had the opportunity to study and work in both a Canadian university and a Finnish one. While Canadian universities are not the same as American ones, they share many similarities. My experiences at both universities gave me many insights into the different models.
American universities can vary greatly from one another. European universities, on the other hand, tend to be more egalitarian. For example, the top-ranked Finnish university is considered to be the University of Helsinki, but the difference between the University of Helsinki and a lesser-ranked university is not as great as is the case in the United States.
In the United States, private universities are very common and tend to be the most prestigious. In Europe, though, public universities are very common and are often considered better than private ones. Private ones, however, by their nature, tend to be very selective and may have very high entrance requirements and very specialized courses.
Since most universities in Europe are public, tuition fees are low or in some cases virtually non-existent. At my Finnish university, there were no tuition fees except for a very small union fee. In addition, all cafeteria meals were very cheap because they were subsidized and travel by train or long-distance bus was at a 50% discount if you showed your university card. Also, Finnish students are all eligible for loans from the Finnish government. European universities tend to receive much more support from the government than American universities do. American universities, though, often receive a great deal of private funding and often offer many scholarships, bursaries and grants.
In the United States, cafeteria meals tend to be expensive. Universities also tend to have fast food outlets and very unhealthy meals. At European universities, though, the meals tend to be much healthier. American universities often have football fields, swimming pools and large gymnasiums. In other words, sports are a very important part of university life. In Europe, this isn’t always the case. In fact, many European universities have no tennis courts, soccer field or swimming pool. Also, many European universities have many years of history while American universities tend to be modern.
Flexibility in the area of course selection tends to be much greater in the USA. In the European model, you often don’t have much flexibility and tend to take courses that are directly related to your major. The American model tends to encourage a very well-rounded education.
The courses which are offered are also sometimes different. For example, the United States is better know for computation linguistics than Europe is, but at the same time, Europe is more famous for courses such as Ancient Greek and Philology.
Both the European and American university models have their advantages and disadvantages. The American model encourages flexibility and a well-rounded education but often has very high tuition fees. The European model often seems more rigid but tends to be more egalitarian in the sense that differences among universities are minimized and tuition fees are usually low or non-existent. The best university model is one which combines the best elements of both the European and American models.