Originally, the character of Whitley was to only appear in just the pilot. However, she became so popular that not only did she become a regular, but it helped to make Jasmine Guy the star of the show.
The show was revamped for the second season not only due to Lisa Bonet's departure, but also in response to criticism that the show didn't accurately depict a historically black college, or college life in general. Debbie Allen, who was named producer prior to season two, began to draw on her own experiences as a graduate of Howard University to add to the show. In addition, Allen and the show's writing staff would make annual visits to Historically Black Colleges to research campus life, issues and events and employ those factors in the series.
Whitley's first season Roommate and "Protege" Millie was written out of the series as Actress Marie-Alice Recaster was planning to have a child. Producers also wanted Whitley to have a Roommate/Confidente who was more of a strong willed/independent contrast, resulting in the creation of Kim.
The show's popularity with young African-American viewers has been credited with boosts in enrollments at several real life Historically Black Colleges and Universities. A number of non African American students have also claimed that they were inspired to pursue a college education by the series as well.
The series was not initially intended as a direct spin-off from The Cosby Show. The original premise centered around Maggie and her experiences as a white student attending a Historically Black College. Eventually it was decided to include Denise on the series, and Maggie instead became a supporting character. When Debbie Allen took over as Producer, she became intrigued by the original idea and wanted to partly center around Maggie and explore related issues as part of her revamping the series. Allen even considered a romantic pairing between Maggie and Dwayne, but ideas relating to Maggie were dropped when Marissa Tomei decided to leave the series.
Ron's decision to pursue a career in music resulted in a falling out between himself and his father. Darryl M. Bell who played Ron said that his decision to go into acting had initially resulted in a fallout between himself and his own father.
Declared Majors of regular characters-Dwayne, Math; Whitley. Art History (Minor in French); Jaleesa, Business; Kim, Pre-Med (attended Medical School in final season); Freddie, Creative Writing (attended Law School during final season); Walter, Masters Degree; Ron, unknown; Lena, Creative Writing; Denise, undeclared; Maggie, Journalism.
Jasmine Guy originally auditioned for the part of Jaleeesa. By the time she had officially signed for the series, the opening credits sequences had already been filmed, which is why her image was never seen in them during the first season.
Kadeem Hardison (Dwayne) and Cree Summer (Freddie) were in a long-term relationship during the show's run. Summer said she was never bothered by Hardison's character's on-screen romance with Jasmine Guy (Whitley), stating that she and Guy were like sisters in real life, the direct opposites of their characters.
During the show's final season, Kim, who had been a Premed Major, was attending Medical School, and Freddie was attending Law School. These reflected the careers of Cliff and Claire Huxtable from The Cosby Show (1984).
Even after Lisa Bonet had left the series, there was still a certain amount of interplay between this show and The Cosby Show (1984). Phylicia Rashad, Lisa Bonet and Joseph C. Phillips appear on an episode during the 1990-1991 season when Dwayne comes to visit Denise. Rashad is also the sister of frequent episode director Debbie Allen. In the 1987-1988 season, Rudy Huxtable (played by Keshia Knight Pulliam ) came to Hillman College to visit Denise. In 1992, a character from the late years of The Cosby show (Charmaine Brown, played by Karen Malina White ) joined the cast of A Different World, as a new student at Hillman College.
At one point in development, Lena Horne was to be featured playing a lead role as a Hillman Teacher and primary Mentor to the Students. Horne would make a guest appearance playing herself during the show's final season.
Bill Cosby made three appearances, all in the first season, as Cliff Huxtable from The Cosby Show. Cliff is only seen in the Huxtable living room or kitchen on the other end of phone calls from Denise. Cliff's only appearance on the Hillman campus was seen in the Cosby Show episode which served as an introduction to A Different World.