The possibility-and potential pitfalls-of an "Americanization" of European higher education are widely discussed. This paper argues that it is important to base comparisons and considerations of possible emulation on a stronger understanding of the specificity of American higher education. It stresses the importance of seeing this as a system with highly differentiated institutions and complex contextual relations. The present paper also summarizes dramatic changes that have transformed American higher education in recent years, and others that are beginning to transform it further. This shows the system to be internally dynamic and also influenced by important external conditions (including matters of finance, public policy, and new technology). The U.S. system is only understood well if analysis locates specific patterns in relation to these structural transformations. Such specificity should inform future comparative research.