For those fortunate enough to go to college (about 25 % of the youth in the US, 11 % in India), it is certainly one of the most interesting and important phases of life. I did my undergraduate studies in America and am doing my graduate studies here as well. While grad school atmospheres may not differ greatly from place to place, there definitely seems to be a considerable difference between the undergrad culture. This is the conclusion I have made after various chats with my fellow grad students who have done their undergrad studies in India, and reading the blogs and other websites related to undergrad studies in India.
I think one of the major differences between universities in India and America is the relative freedom a student has when it comes to choosing their curriculum. This is true of both the course of study (Eg.: Electrical Engineering, Business, Philosophy) and individual courses themselves (Eg: Fluid Mechanics, History of Innovation in America etc.). This freedom is the result of many factors. But I think the main one is that most US universities tend to have a more complete campus, i.e., good, well-staffed and well-attended schools of science, engineering, business, liberal arts and so on, all in the same 40 acres or so. The amount of research talent on the campus of any major university in the US is amazing, and a good student should try to make use every possible department they are interested in, especially in the first year of school. Most students come in not sure of what they want to do and get a feel for things before they choose their preferred program of study.
I think universities in India tend to be more focused, on education and in particular, engineering education. Indian universities need to diversify and strengthen their departments in all areas if they are to produce a well-rounded student body. They are not going to compete with US universities anytime soon, but if we can offer our own researchers a decent environment to work in, I am sure they will do very good work. Even with the current problems, India outputs a large number of papers and the highest number per capita income. There is so much diversity in India, in its culture, languages and problems that it is a very fertile area for dedicated researchers. Some efforts are being made, but they are still focussed mainly on technology.
I think another important difference between most Indian and American univs is that almost US college students live near their university and not with their parents. This does happen with the IITs and the NITs, but I think those are the exception rather than the norm. I think living by yourself at that age is crucial to achieving a certain level of emotional maturity and independence, although of course, some will misuse it. So many of the things I learnt to do by myself, cooking, doing laundry, paying bills etc, I wouldnt have learnt if I had stayed with my parents while going to college. And there is the benefits of people (esp. girls) breaking the shackles of their families, and finding their partners in college on their own terms.
One interesting thing about American colleges is college sports. The big public universities all have strong sports programs as I have mentioned earlier. The colleges offer scholarships to good athletes from high-schools and they often play for the college teams, in front of as many as 100,000 people. Needless to say, most of the fans are the students of the college. It is their attendance that mostly pays for the world-class facilities for the athletes. Indeed college sports is an integral but exaggerated part of the broader American culture, with people following their teams for years after graduating.
I will talk more about the other aspects of college life here in some upcoming posts.