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Europe or the US? Educational Questions We Need to Ask

Sarah Scrafford, who regularly writes on the topic of Online University Rankings, wrote this guest post:

Are European and US college programs equivalent?

The transatlantic divide is being further torn apart by the educational argument. The fierce debate rages on – are the three year degrees offered by institutions in the UK and across most of Europe equivalent to the four year programs on offer at US colleges? If not, which of them is the more superior? Are graduates of the shorter program less smart than their American counterparts? Or is it vice versa?

Colleges in the USA are being urged to consider admitting students from the UK and other parts of Europe where three year undergraduate degrees are the norm, to their graduate programs, without requiring them to take additional courses to qualify. Their argument – the first year of any degree program is dedicated to general education courses with the specialization (or major) starting only in the second year. European and UK universities focus on the major right from the word go, and so are able to learn as much as the Americans in just three years. As for the fact that three year graduates are asked to take an extra course to qualify for a graduate program across the Atlantic, British academics argue that this is a wasted exercise since they’re just learning what they already know – the year they’ve missed is the first year, the one that teaches general education. But the extra course they take deals with their major once again, a repeat of what they’ve already learned in college.

Other allegations and arguments abound, as to why the United States is refusing to change and standardize its education system with the most of the rest of the world (Australia and India are two other countries that follow three year undergraduate degree programs), and most of them are not exactly flattering to the US:

· Some accuse US institutions of being money-minded – a four year program will cost more for tuition than a three year equivalent.

· Others are skeptical of the quality of high school education in the US – they allege that high school graduates are lagging behind when compared to UK and European standards, and so require that extra year (freshman) of college to bring them up to speed with the rest of the world. Besides this, in the US, kindergarten students begin a year or two later than their peers in the UK and Europe. This puts them at a distinct disadvantage when they reach high school.

Supporters of the US educational system on the other hand, have this to say in their defense:

· Institutions are hesitant to admit three year graduates because, even though they’re smart, they’re not well-versed in marketing their skills. They’re often unable to communicate or even write well. You may be a high-flying engineer, doctor or lawyer, but it all boils down to nothing if you cannot write or orate well.

Regardless of which is better, there are some who argue that the US must rethink its policies and admit graduates of three year programs because:

· Countries like India, which boasts an excellent K12 education program and currently sends the largest number of foreign students to the country each year, have a three year degree system in place. If the US throws open its educational doors to them, colleges will see a massive rise in the level of enrollment, and correspondingly in their profit margins.

· If they do not do so, they will end up losing promising students to other countries where they are accepted, and the tuition fees are much cheaper.


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Sue on :

I’m not sure why the US should change its four-year model. From what I’ve seen, British students spend the total years from 18-22 in similar ways to American ones, except that they travel more (Gap year) and work less in paid employment. That said, this post raises some interesting points. “Are US undergraduate programs equivalent to European ones?” Not necessarily. A 3-year undergraduate degree from a European university may be more akin to a Master’s degree in the US. Yes, US students must take general studies before moving into academic specializations in the last two years of the Bachelor’s. Many 18-year-olds do not know what they want to study and lack knowledge of the alternatives. The first two years of the US undergraduate program give them some flexibility in making a decision. They can change their program without having to reapply for admission. In Britain, if you applied for PPE or Classics or whatever, you’re stuck with it for three years even if you end up hating it. “Should graduate programs in the US accept students with 3-year undergraduate degrees?” It depends. Many international graduate students in the US come for scientific or technical degrees. If their writing and speaking skills in English are minimal despite a passing TOEFL score or high GRE mathematics score, they are at a disadvantage in such routine academic tasks as writing papers, giving talks at conferences, and serving as graduate teaching assistants. Furthermore, the culture of US higher education, regardless of the academic discipline, puts a high value on self-promotion and debate. Students from certain cultural backgrounds may not be well equipped to compete in this environment. I have worked with international students from Asian countries who are nervous about writing an argumentative essay or who need to be informed that repeating the professor’s lecture notes in a term paper is an unacceptable practice. The strategies and behaviors that conferred academic success in their home countries do not necessarily work here. It’s not a question of 3-year vs. 4-year undergraduate degrees but rather of culture. The US has already "thrown open its educational doors" to international students. Most colleges and universities have admissions criteria (placement exams, informed transcript evaluations) that attempt in good faith to identify students from varied backgrounds who can benefit from their programs. In my view, this post describes a problem (foreign students' access to US higher education) that does not really exist. The question of whether US education across the board needs to be reformed is another one altogether.

Marie Claude on :

in France education has progressive degrees after 2 years DEUG, then you can apply for a school of educattion in IUFM, 3 years where you are paid for studying) licence, 3 years, Master, 4 years Doctorat, 8 years I have a DEUG in history of Art (2 years, many more years in a Sculpture school, cause of the "atelier" also a DNA in Art school (2 years) Though, in this discipline it's more personal work that gives results than theory learning if you want to become a teacher you have to get a CAPES or Agregation (PHD) for any discipline I think that the school year is longer in our country (beginning of november until june) than in the US, it's may-be why the global cursus is shorter

Joe Noory on :

The "school year" in the US is either 2 out of 3 simesters, or in some places 3 out of 4 quarters and runs generally from early September to mid May. Either way, one could have gone to once you start working it really doesn't matter if you went to Po-dunk U. We have French people here who too 2 and 3 year programs who do well enough compared to people with 4 year degrees, and a few people who never finished University altogether who are the same.

Joe N. on :

Having hired them from both sides of the pond, they both reflect a similar distribution of talent, interest, and degree of preparation. The American self-loathing fable of the inferiority of their own education might make one feel smart to say, but in the end it's meaningless. Either way there are a few recent graduates whom you can't even trust with the kiddie scissors. That said, I can't picture even the most delusional American college student indulging themselves in the ideas that the French students did over the CPE strikes - the idea that the job of ones' choice can be somehow demanded at will and guaranteed to the program graduate for life.

David on :

"Others are skeptical of the quality of high school education in the US " That is a polite understatement. I am an adjunct professor at a public college and can confirm that a large percentage of American students are graduating high school with insufficient writing and math skills. The first year of college in the US is more and more devoted to remedial education. This is the case at colleges and universities across the country.

Marie Claude on :

David, Also here, the first year at university is the most boring year for university teachers, too many students can't manage orthograph and or maths, so, after the first trimester 1/4 are eliminated or are walking off on their own will ; at the end of the year, another 1/4 are moving off because of their lack of conaissance, or change of discipline at the end of the 2nd year, another half are moving off, wether they start another orientation such as : teaching school, army, navy,law faculty, HEC... Art school, theater, or enter into the real working world, get married, babies...

Don S on :

David, a brief question. Is thsi an actual effect or an artifact of the college you teach at? Public colleges range from the likes of Michigan down to Shippensberg State, and the portion of the educational bell curve you encounter depends very much upon where you are. Moreover, I believe that the distribution of students well-prepared for college was far more widespread 30 or 50 years ago than it is today. That is top students 30 years ago were far more likely to attend a non-elite school than they are today; years ago many of these students attended local colleges like CCNY for undergrad rather than the Ivies. Today well-prepared students are more aware of where they fit into the spectrum than they were. My point is that if one is teaching at one of the less-prestigious public universities or at a 2 year school, one may well be seeing a marked decline in well-prepared students at one's institution without there existing as marked a decline in the student population at large. Could this be true in your case? I think there is a trend for many students to drop out of the technical subjects earlier than in the past. Specifically higher math and the sciences. I was an earlier example of such a student although in my case the dropout wasn't voluntary. I attended a very small and impoverished public school which lacked the resources to provide advanced science and math courses so I arrived at university underprepared in these fields and also unable to write well, although I did very well on the ACT test.

David on :

Don, I teach part-time at a community college. We serve the poorer students - those with bad test scores as well as those who cannot afford a private school or even a state university. We also get older students looking to change careers and acquire new skills: these are usually much more motivated. But the problems we have with incoming students at my college are unfortunately not unique. This [url=]AP article appeared recently[/url]: "It's a tough lesson for millions of students just now arriving on campus: even if you have a high school diploma, you may not be ready for college. In fact, a new study calculates, one-third of American college students have to enroll in remedial classes. The bill to colleges and taxpayers for trying to bring them up to speed on material they were supposed to learn in high school comes to between $2.3 billion and $2.9 billion annually."

Don S on :

I used to sit next to a colleague in IT who was a teacher at Suffolk College, basically a Brit version of a community college, and he said many of the things you are writing. The 'high cost' of remedial education neither shocks or dismays me; $3 billion in an economy of $13 trillion is relatively small beer. In fact I think it possible and even likely that we are spending too little rather than too much on remedial education. If remedial courses can get people into a postion where they can benefit from courses of higher education, earn more money, and potentially enrich their lives in other ways I'd say $3 billion is cheap - compared to the costs of not doing it. What bothers me is the motivational factor you mention, because this is where the problem lies in my opinion. It's not so much a failure of motivation as a poverty of imagination for poor students and (sometimes) their teachers. They find it difficult to visualize themselves doing something different, something better, becoming highly-skilled and highly paid knowledge workers, even though they possss the capacity to do these things.

Don S on :

One more thing, David. From what I understand about 30% of US high schools are doing a pretty horrible job. It's partly low funding and bad teaching, but much of the problem begins at home and in the neighborhood. My mother returned to schoolteaching for a while during the 80's and listening to her gave me an interesting perspective. She was a caucasian teaching mostly negro kids who had been bused across the city to a school in a more caucasian neighborhood. Her first year she was lucky. The most influential kid in her class was a smart kid whose 'light' went on that year. He'd recently begun to live with an aunt who was a very solid lady, and there was a lot of mutual respect all around. The boy had been behind in his studies but made up 3 or 4 years ground, and by the end of the year was admitted to one of the best high schools in the city (this was an 8th grade class). The rest of the class dod pretty well also. The next year wasn't so lucky. The leader that year was also a very talented young man, but this one couldn't be bothered to do anything but disrupt the class. When the teacher gave him a lousy grade, his mother visited the school breathing fire, and filed a grievance for racism. Mother never got a handle on that kid. When she tried to tell him about the great future he could have, he sneered at it and indicated that he was going to be a dealer. Apparently this was the family business, or so he implied. This kid had a lot of facile charm and managed to convince the principal that my mother was against him, but didn't bother to charm the lowly vice principals. One day he went a bit too far and hit my mother in front of the class. One of the Vice Principals, a huge gentle black gentleman, came in and swept the kid out of the classroom. The VP had what he wanted and forcibly transferred the kid. A shame but it was the best thing for the class, if not the kid. This is the kind of thing which happens in these kinds of schools. Some kids do Ok, but just keeping control of things can be a tough job.

Sue on :

Obviously there is a pecking order in post-secondary education. I am an associate professor at a mid-sized comprehensive university in the Northeast. I have certainly seen many students who don't belong in college but who are nonetheless decent, hardworking and shrewd. I believe that the US should put resources and scholarships into meaningful post-secondary vocational training. The idea that every high-school senior should attend college is not only naive but destructive to those students who clearly cannot benefit from a university-level curriculum and would be much happier and more productive doing something else. We live in a credential-crazed world, and we should provide rigorous and respected certification for students who want to work with their hands. And let's face it, in this current economy, who will prosper: the plumber or the stock analyst?

Don S on :

Sue, I'm not sure I believed what you wrote, that 'decent, hardworking, and shrewd' students don't *belong* in college? Why not? Because their preperation lacks a little something? I came from the smallest high school in the state of Wisconsin. The course offerings left a great deal to be desired and I left not knowing a great deal about math and lacking rigorous experimental science. On the other hand I had pretty much swallowed the contents of the local public library and had technical problem-solving skills because my class had produced our own annual. So perhaps I didn't belong at University? It's true I was behind and come in not knowing how to write well, but a acid-tongued teacher in Freshmen English remedied the latter deficiency and hard work the former, in time. I think it's important that students be given an opportunity to attend college, and if that means remedial courses are needed, so be it. Better that way than the massice triage that one sees in French and Italian institutions where there is a 50% dropout rate over the first two years....

Pat Patterson on :

I think that Sue's point was that many intelligent students are pointed at and often coerced to seek academic degrees while ignoring that it often takes just as much intelligence to go into a technical field. It takes, in the US, slightly longer to become a certified diver/welder, for an oil rig company, then it does to become a high school principal. And that diver, though in a high risk profession often makes $100,000 to $200,000 a year. As a result many of the kids coming into the JCs and the state colleges are often the same students that should have had what were called manual arts in college. But teachers, board members and superintendents get that photo in the paper not by graduating more plumbers and auto mechanics but in how many enter into college. The fact that so many leave vs. the graduation rate might be an indication of a lack of basic scholarship but also could be that not every kid is suited or is interested in becoming a white collar worker.

David on :

We offer rigorous programs in HVAC, electronics, building construction, automotive, etc... often working together with local businesses to provide internships. Problem is, today these jobs require higher math skills, knowledge of computers, etc. Many kids drop out of the automotive program because advanced algebra is required and they can't pass the course. Back in the day, advanced algebra was required in order to graduate high school.

Sue on :

Don, a student such are you were, who is obviously interested in academics and is willing to do what's needed to get up to speed, should have a shot at college. But I was speaking of students who lack motivation in academics, who just aren't interested in the life of the mind. I think they are criminally misserved by the relentless pressure placed on them by the educational establishment to get a Bachelor's degree; it sets them up for failure and financial hardship. These kids never read a book voluntarily, and they have no academic interests. Their presence in a university ultimately does them no good. In fact, they usually end up leaving after two years and thousands of dollars down the drain. It's such a waste.

Marie Claude on :

dunno if you have that system, high school technical and or college classes in alternance : 2 weeks at school, 2 weeks in enterprise learning a job on the ground. My 2nd son, who is actually a successful technico-commercial in the cinema industry, wasn't motivated by classical high school courses anymore (he attended "1ère S" with maths as major). The year before his baccalaureat exam (he was 17 years old), my hubby and I were making a sailing trip for a month in november, when we came back we constated his catastrophic results, he hadn't open a school or an exercise book for the month, but playing guitar and recording his works. The rest of the year wasn't much better, so his profs said he had to retake his class one more year (it's called "redoublement" here), I said it's not working, cause he won't work more than usal, as his interests were somewhere else. I decided to remove him from the school and look for a semi-professional one which could also conduct him towards a professional baccalaureat. Fortunately an attraction park based on scientific movies and videos was around, found him there a plce . He's been doing quite well, and even became responsable of a team of newbies that he had to train. He got his baccalaureat with excellence and a positive opinion of himself The next year he attended a specialisation course for sound-track recording. then he went to work fast a year in London to improve his english, finally to Paris. Before he was hired by his former firm, he worked in different fashionable bars, restaurants and or discotheques, where he happened to make quite interesting aquaintances, that still serve him in his actual job So, I think that too many parents think that their children must make long studies to get a good job, this is still the old idea that our parents had as rural or simple workers. The most important for a child is to permit him get a positive opinion of his skills, not depending on his studies levels. When he has this confidence, then he can evolve in life.

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