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Comparing College Education in the US and Germany: A Student Perspective

July 28th, 2017: Less than a week until the day of my departure to Boston. The flight is booked, the bags are packed, the goodbyes are said. And yet, here I am, sitting in a cultural preparatory course, that’s supposed to brace us for our study abroad experience in America. It is a hot, sunny Friday afternoon, temperatures are in the nineties, and of course we’re sitting in the one room without A/C. “This is useless”, I said to myself. “This will be another class that emphasizes cultural clichés and exposes all kinds of stereotypes about the U.S. that we’ve all heard a thousand times before: “Americans like small talk”, “They call you friend, even though they barely know you”, “They love their junk food”. Okay, we all got it! And I was proven right. This course was supposed to prepare us for a culture shock. But honestly, the “Western” cultures of the United States (at least along the coastlines) and the west European countries are not as different as it could lead to any kind of a shock. The only surprise that I personally experienced was the kindness of people in Boston. When I say that out loud now, Bostonians are caught off guard: “Are you kidding me?” and “You can not be serious! Boston is the second unfriendliest city in America!” (Right after New York City of course.)

What the class didn’t prepare us for was the differences of educational systems between the U.S. and, in my case, Germany. Presumably there are major differences on a high school level as well, but I want to focus on noticeable differences in college, that I can tell out of experience.

For a start, there are the obvious, provable factors that everybody is, or should be, aware of, and one of them involves money. You know, the thing that college kids usually don’t have. Education in private schools in the U.S. costs a fortune, while it is free in many European countries. It might seem obvious to say which system is preferable; but there are actually two sides of the same coin: The beauty of free education is, that you can discontinue a program after a while, when you realize that you’d rather study something else, without losing any money. The only loss is, let’s say, a year that you wasted when you decide to swap programs after two semesters. But who cares whether you start working at the age of 26 or the age of 27? The only effect it really does it that you either need to work a year longer than planned, or that you get a small cut in pension entitlements, because you’ve worked a year less than you would have.

That leads me to another point: students in Europe usually don’t care how long it takes till they finish their program. “The standard period of study is eight semesters? Let’s make it twelve, because I don’t want to stress myself out.” I am actually an advocate of that approach. Not because I want to give a favorable opinion about being lazy and letting things slide, but because I’m in favor of studying an issue in depth, when it grabs my attention in class, when it interests me more than other issues. That can take time. I can’t do that when my study period is limited because I feel financially pressured to hurry and finish the program as fast as possible.

As mentioned before, there is one downside of free education that is worth mentioning: Because the only income German universities gain is State funding, they are obviously more likely to struggle with financial difficulties. That is why some departments must deal with old, outdated equipment, or they simply don’t have enough equipment for all students. In my experience, especially scientific departments like chemistry, physics, and biology suffer the most from that. Lab equipment is expensive, and sometimes the money just isn’t there. When I look around at Lesley, I get a whole other impression. People may argue that things are not perfect at Lesley, but it is definitively way better equipped than the average European college.

The same problem applies for employees. While a private U.S. school for instance can hire 10 people who are responsible for students’ well-being, in Europe there is maybe money in the budget for one equivalent. For example, let’s say I have a personal issue with anything at Lesley, that could be a technical issue with Blackboard (in my opinion one of the worst software systems of all times, by the way), or it could be some personal issue I’d like to discuss, because I’m unhappy with one of my classes. There’s always somebody I can contact and who will make time for students: advisors, counselors, etc. When students have a problem at my university in Germany and they approach the two people who are responsible for 5,000 students, and it turns out they could have solved the problem by themselves, those two people will kick your butt so hard that you think twice next time a problem occurs, if it’s even worth it to approach them during office hours. We jokingly call the door to their offices “the gates of hell” because students don’t feel very welcomed when they go in. But I don’t blame them. These people have way too many responsibilities, and that’s because of budget constraints at the school.

Let’s continue with the not so obvious differences that you only notice when you experience both systems:

First, there is a dissimilarity in the attitude of how a relationship between a student and a professor should look: While classes at Lesley are very collaborative and interactive, classes in Germany are more of a one-way road. Professors lecture about the topics that need to be completed after the semester, students listen and take notes. If you can’t keep up or have a question – tough luck! Either you ask your fellow students, or you must find a way to educate yourself with literature. If you miss a deadline – tough luck! You get an “F” and nobody but you cares. Interestingly, my university in Freiburg, Germany uses similar teaching methods and attitudes as teachers at Lesley. But that’s more the exception to the rule. In general, the “American” way of teachers performing a class is better, in my opinion. It’s less stressful to your mind and temperament, because you feel appreciated and not like a nameless nobody to the teacher. To a certain extent, Lesley teachers do a great job in terms of interpersonal relationships.

But at this point, I also want to criticize the predominant practice of teachers at Lesley of treating students with kid gloves. As nice as comfortable it feels to be in the position of a Lesley student, when I think about the future employers of any company that hires someone who graduated from Lesley, it’s not very likely that his or her boss is as appreciative and encouraging as a teacher at Lesley. In order to prepare college students properly, I’d recommend keeping the appreciative and collaborative ways of teaching, but also to call students to account more. In my opinion, it is not okay to give reams of extensions on assignments because it can become a bad habit to not finish your obligations on time. Exceptions every now and then are totally acceptable if there’s a reason for a late submission. But I had to many classes where deadlines seem to be more like a guideline, and that’s not how it works in a working environment of prospective employers.

In conclusion, I believe there are good reasons for and against the American and the European college education systems. If you can afford it, an American private college provides you with more opportunities to learn and to develop yourself and your interests, because the availability of financial and human resources. I personally have trouble with that when it comes to students who can’t afford the tuition and who are not one of the lucky few who qualify for a full scholarship. There are community colleges, but if a company must pick one out of two applicants, it’s more likely that they pick the one with the private education. Education should be available for everybody equally.

University of Education at Freiburg, Germany

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