As an exchange student from Germany at Carnegie Mellon, I have scrutinized the education systems of American and Germany; I became curious to know if there are fields in which the problems of both countries are similar.
Indeed, on both sides of the Atlantic, people have issues with grade inflation and allocating university funds to where they are most needed.
Often, grades given in both countries do not accurately reflect a student’s academic performance. It is not just American schools that make their students look better by refraining from giving bad grades; German universities are guilty as well. According to one of the largest German newspapers, Süddeutsche Zeitung, there are certain subjects that consistently favor good grades. Natural sciences, while allegedly difficult subjects, yield very high grades. In a study conducted by the German Science Council, biology majors were found to only have a 2 percent chance of graduating with anything less than a B-. It is unlikely that this trend is only due to high dropout rates, which are a product of the effort to let only the best students graduate. I cannot help but think that a student could earn a B today with the same amount of work that would have earned him or her a C 30 years ago.
Furthermore, different educational institutions seem to use different scales in grading. The council found that German majors from the University of Giessen had a GPA of 1.6 as opposed to students from the Humboldt-University Berlin, who scored a 2.2, with 1.0 and 4.0 being the highest and lowest grades, respectively.
According to Süddeutsche Zeitung, experts have recognized the need for a more accurate standardized grading system, making graduates comparable. Like the U.S., my home country has a strong federalist tendency and there are no common standards of what students must know after completing their degrees.
This ambition might sound strange to those in America, where the distinction between elite institutions like Harvard University and average state colleges is striking. In Germany, however, most universities are public and are therefore responsible for teaching the same materials.
While it makes sense for the German system to strive toward more equality, it would not make sense for the U.S. to adapt the same behavior, as its private universities are the beacon of the world already.
After studying at Carnegie Mellon for two semesters, I’ve become accustomed to the fact that some exams that are impossible to fail. Still, it was rather surprising to learn that it has not always been like this. According to The Economist, 43 percent of all grades given at universities are As. This number is a startling 28 percent higher than in 1960. While this is not as drastic as monetary inflation over the same period, it is fair to talk about a “creeping grade inflation” that can only be detrimental to the quality in higher learning. As the grading scale is limited, students may eventually hit a saturation point, meaning that the average GPA may approach 4.0. This similarity among academics could reduce the amount of information that can be concluded from grades. Then, college education becomes a prerequisite for a white-collar job and the highest paying jobs will require ridiculously impressive achievements, such as founding a nonprofit organization before the age of 20.
Germany and the U.S. both struggle to add more value to education per dollar spent. In Germany, the government favors some universities by giving them extra research grants. The German Science Council plays a major role here, deciding which of the many institutions deserves to become part of the Initiative for Excellence. Unfortunately, undergraduate equipment remains in a deplorable condition as most government grants are directed toward high-level laboratory equipment.
Two efforts recently occurred to counteract this tendency. In 2011, the ministry for education started the “Pact for Teaching Quality,” dividing 400 million euros among 102 universities. What seems like a small amount of distributed funds is all the government can afford.
Additionally, a few professors have become more aware of the chronically underfunded teaching sector, and have started a grassroots movement themselves, according to German newspaper Die Zeit. Part of the movement’s efforts include offering workshops for professors to show that giving a lecture is more than just skipping through PowerPoint slides.
Individual efforts like these will constitute an important component in striving toward a brighter future.
While they are not underfunded, American universities struggle to make their invested money have an impact. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the U.S. spends a higher percentage of its GDP on education than any other country in the world. However, America still finds itself outside the top 10 when it comes to the percentage of citizens with a college degree, according to The Economist. The U.S. only places 15th in this category.
Even if a student completes his or her four-year degree — and only 60 percent of them do — his or her debt will accumalte over the years to an average of $26,000, says the Institute For College Access & Success. That, coupled with the fact that college education does not guarantee a well-paid job nowadays, means young people could soon be looking for other educational options.
In conclusion, similar problems in higher education emerge in both Germany and the United States. It seems like both systems are stuck in a vicious cycle of struggling to improve the learning experience and of making graduates more suitable for the labor market today. Governments and university officials prefer taking shortcuts in order to meet today’s requirements rather than address the root causes of the problems. However, giving every graduate exceptional grades is likely to backfire in the near future.
In order to keep the high education standard, we have to re-evaluate our grading standards and wisely spend money on causes that bring us closer to our goal of educating citizens to shape the world of tomorrow.
Während ich an der Carnegie Mellon University studiert habe, veröffentlichte ich eine dreiteilige Serie in der Campus Zeitung zum Thema "Unterschiedlichkeit der Hochschulbildung in Amerika und Deutschland". Dies ist der zweite Artikel der Serie.
When I came to America from RWTH Aachen University in Germany for a year abroad, most of my expectations for Carnegie Mellon were met. I was amazed by how much time and effort Carnegie Mellon put into organizing events for incoming students and introducing them to their new environment. After the first two years in Germany, where I felt like one out of many, the warm welcome at Carnegie Mellon was a nice change. However, as the semester progressed, I got a more realistic image of what studying in America was really like and I realized that there is also room to improve here. Away from home, I recognized the strengths of my home university.
In America, I started to appreciate the freedom that every student is given at RWTH Aachen University. While it is true that in Germany problem sets come up each week, and it is a good idea to do work during the semester, you can decide to what extent you want to study the material. Since your grade does not depend on submitted homework, it is less likely to see students staying up all night to finish problem sets. That makes it more likely for people to appreciate the world outside of the university, since they have more time to do so. In Germany, it is more likely for people to join clubs that are not affiliated with the university.
Furthermore, a day off at RWTH makes one feel less guilty because there are no immediate consequences of unfinished work. Having the discipline to catch up on material that one has not yet understood is crucial to succeeding in the German system. With one year of Carnegie Mellon experience under my belt, comprehensive final exams worth 100 percent of course grades will not scare me much anymore. The stress at RWTH University during the semester is not as immediate as in America. Carnegie Mellon has made me familiar with what stress really means.
While I appreciate the campus culture at Carnegie Mellon, it is amazing how much time students spend on campus daily. Unsurprisingly, one day a friend’s smartphone attempted to relocate his home address to 5000 Forbes Ave.
Working in a university environment and being around people with similar passions foster ideas. Yet, this constant proximity to peers contributes to the much-quoted stress culture at Carnegie Mellon. It might sound simplistic, but leaving campus can make one understand that there is more out there than grades and research success.
That said, I admire how much Carnegie Mellon is already doing to relieve the pressure. Skiing and paintball trips help, but at the end of the day, students often do not take advantage of those offers; work piles up too quickly.
While in America, a valuable skill I was taught at home also became apparent: self-motivation. The professors who I started my academic career with never gave many instructions. Offering the resources for students to succeed in their studies, professors at RWTH did not interfere much in learning course material. Especially for first-year students, this freedom feels unnatural. However, being thrown in at the deep end teaches students how to overcome obstacles. For many students, this freedom coincides with them leaving their parents’ house, causing adult life to start very abruptly.
Carnegie Mellon follows quite a different paradigm. Giving more guidelines on how to attack problems, professors demand more work. I was irritated when a professor banned collaboration on certain problem sets. While the benefit of specified collaboration was apparent to me, I saw this practice impinging on my freedom. From my current standpoint, the German system is less protective and wants its students to learn what works by themselves. Undoubtedly, university graduates will be asked open-ended questions in their professional lives. Being self-sufficient will then be invaluable.
Another interesting difference between RWTH and Carnegie Mellon is grading. Today, I know that the grading system back home is hard but fair. In Aachen, I often complained about how hard it was to get an A. As I hoped to finally see better test grades, I was looking forward to my exchange year in America. In Germany, past exams handed out by professors clearly show what is expected. Even though it is hard to admit, the test results are closely related to how well you understand the material. It becomes apparent to every student where he or she stands in comparison to their peers. If a whole class at RWTH underperforms on a test, there is no curve to make everyone look better. Professors only curve exams when the percentage of people failing the exam is too high, not when too few people get A’s.
In most Carnegie Mellon courses, professors seem to have guidelines concerning what percentage of students must finish with A’s. That makes some courses impossible to fail. I even heard of an exam where a zero was cureved to a C. To me, that seems incredible and self-deceiving. Another downside of Carnegie Mellon’s grading system is that suddenly, helping your peers becomes detrimental to your own grade.
Luckily, most of the people I have met here are exceptional both in their academic performance and in their willingness to help. However, the fact remains that your grade may depend on whether or not you outperform your friends.
Juxtaposing both systems, it becomes apparent that American and German universities each have individual strengths and weaknesses.
Während ich an der Carnegie Mellon University studiert habe, veröffentlichte ich eine dreiteilige Serie in der Campus Zeitung zum Thema "Unterschiedlichkeit der Hochschulbildung in Amerika und Deutschland". Dies ist der erste Artikel der Serie.
My preparation for the interview to study abroad seemed perfect. The opportunity to leave RWTH Aachen University, Germany for Carnegie Mellon sounded like the opportunity to travel to a better place.
When I found myself being assessed on my capacity to represent my home university abroad, I displayed my enthusiasm for Carnegie Mellon, a place I read about in Randy Pausch’s The Last Lecture. There was, however, one question that I had not seen coming: “As an ambassador for our university, what is it that you would tell an American in order to make him come here for a year?”
At the time, Carnegie Mellon seemed to be an escape from a place whose strengths I did not yet recognize. There are several flaws of my university and the approach it takes to educating future engineers. With four to five courses each semester, the workload in Germany — particularly having problem set after problem set thrown at me — was frustrating. Instead of fostering interests in a specific subject, the weekly workload made it impossible to further research a topic presented in class. My expectations of a scholarly life full of captivating insights were not met. Quite the opposite, at no point did the university appear to care about its students, with the most difficult subjects like thermodynamics yielding 40 percent fail rates. Achieving a C+ or B- on an exam was often considered an above-average performance.
I also did not see myself thriving in an environment with large class sizes and little space to study, both due to funding. Even though RWTH Aachen is funded more adequately than any other university in Germany, according
to Financial Times Deutschland, our “first-year experience” in engineering is sitting in a gigantic lecture hall with over 1,000 students. During my first year, I had trouble coping with the fact that I seemed to have turned from an
individual into a mere number. I could not help but feel that my institution would not notice if I dropped out.
Finding study locations during the most intense periods of the semester became an art itself. A long queue of students waiting outside the library at 8 a.m. was a common observation. This lack of funding hurt the undergraduate experience, as it made individual lab experiences impossible and it impinged on lectures. Malfunctioning microphones in the lecture halls of Germany’s top technical university are expected. Despite the university officials’ promise to make lecture hall equipment reflect the high standards of RWTH, the implementation of these changes are slow. If installing a new microphone is economically unfeasible,
how can one even hope for a more practical lab experience that utilizes expensive equipment?
Professors also often have limited availability. The conversations I have had with professors always inspired me — reason enough to fantasize about how great close collaboration between students and lecturers would be. While
teaching assistants were available to speak multiple times a week, professors were not often available because they rarely have set office hours. One of the reasons for that is their role at a lot of German universities. Rather than being heavily involved in research themselves, they act as managers who define the pathway that research in their department should take. Therefore, their connection to undergraduate students is often limited to the lectures that they give.
Because of these aspects, Carnegie Mellon embodied the “Promised Land” in terms of education. I dreamed of small classrooms, fair grading, and problem sets that taught meaningful material. In America, there would be professors with regular office hours, available computer clusters, and grades that reflected the work put into courses.
My hope was that combining experiences from German and U.S. universities would help students become better engineers. While my experiences at Carnegie Mellon have allowed me to realize my home education system’s flaws, they have also allowed me to identify its strengths, which I will talk about in my next article.
This article is the first in a series of articles detailing the realizations of an exchange student studying at Carnegie Mellon.