8:10 on a Wednesday morning in a lecture hall, waiting for the first class of the day to start. It is one of the introductory classes which provides students studying English with an insight to literature in Britain, Canada and the USA. Hundreds stream into the lecture wishing to take the exam and be done with it and have it checked off the list of classes to visit as part of the requirements for their studies- for those pursuing their teaching degree, it is of utmost importance to pass the course for failing it could delay their finish time by up to a semester. Many students take this class for their interest, their curiosity, knowing the likes of Shakespeare, Faulkner, London and the like, although the readings of Mellville, Fitzgerald and Miller are awaiting them. The numbers are getting bigger as the lecture hall is filled to the brim, and many students have to stand along the aisles in order to listen to a German professor trying her best with Canadian English, and this despite the fact that students only have to pay a small tuition fee per semester in order to attend college. These are the students of a university in Germany, all wanting a Bachelor’s, Master’s and a Teaching (in German, Lehramt) degree, all wanting a job in the future, as linguists, researchers and professors and English teacher, just to name a few.
At about that time across the Atlantic Ocean, a classroom of 30 students is halfway full, some students trickle in half-tired from working the night before. The professor teaching the class, American Literature in the Depression Era, looking at the works written by John Steinbeck, Langston Highes, Ernest Hemmingway and John Dos Passos is displeased with the fact that half of the 15 students in a class where 30 students are needed, could not complete the homework assignment in time, one of three essays- a requirement to pass the course, along with the final examination. Many of these students cannot concentrate because they are worried about the debts they have accrued during their studies, either individually or through their parents. Some are thinking about transferring to a smaller college, where tuition is lower than the $20,000 they have to pay at this university- per semester! All of them do not know what to do with their lives after their studies, as they have not done any internships nor collected practical experience, as they should have done. The exception to the rule is if you are pursuing a degree as a teacher, then you need three months of experience before you can become a licensed teacher, but even then, the requirements to obtain a license varies from state to state. These are the students of a university in the United States of America, getting four-year degree in something, but not knowing what to do next.
Education is the key to a successful life. One needs all the theoretical skills and practical experience required by each institution in order for them to get a proper job with high pay and benefits. The most important goal is to have a permanent career without having to change careers. Yet, many professions have died off in the past 10 years, compensated by others requiring more precise experience- out with the manufacturing but in with information technology and green technology, out with jobs in the industries that produce the pollutants that had harmed the environment for decades, but in with the demand for teachers to teach math, languages and humanities, as the understanding of society is lacking and many people want to understand more about it and embrace whatever culture is there. Yet, have the politicians paid attention? And why are universities are jacking the prices up for education, especially in the United States?
In Germany, we tried to copy the education model in the US by introducing the 500 Euro per semester tuition as early as 2000. Fair? By US standards it is, and after talking about tuition with other foreign exchange students during my Master’s studies at the University of Jena, many claim that the tuition is nothing compared to paying 10 times as much in countries, like Spain, Portugal, England, France and Switzerland. It was split down the middle among the students, with the majority having their way with eliminating in all but two states in Germany (Lower Saxony, Bavaria), as well as the city-states of Hamburg and Bremen. The rest of the states have either semester fees not exceeding 200 Euros or have allowed students to go to the university for free. The reason: education is an opportunity for all and the state and federal government has the obligation to finance the education system. Has it degraded the quality of education at the universities? No. In fact, we have up-to-date technology that has helped us learn faster and more efficiently. We have younger teachers who are available to help students in need, despite the majority being freelancers. And the students have taken the responsibility of completing their studies themselves without having any external influence.
There is a wish that the US would do the same. In the past 15 years, tuition at all universities and colleges has skyrocketed by up to 300% on average. At my alma mater, Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota, for example, the total cost for the whole year is over $40,000, two and a half times as high as the amount I paid my freshman year 16 years ago! No matter which college a person goes to, tuition has gone through the roof. While financing includes tuition, housing, and other expenses on campus, it is very steep for one whose family is struggling to make ends meet especially in hard economic times. Protests broke out in large cities including those in California in 2009-10 demanding more equality for education and an easing of tuition fees to allow students to attend. And for those who attended college but was unable to find a job, the trend of going into bankruptcy has rocketed. The latest report indicated that the Class of 2010 had the highest student loan rate ever and that the rate of student loan defaults after two years also reached an all time high of 9.1%- double of what it was 10 years ago! In Germany, the rate is extremely low, thanks to the Barfög, a German student loan program where students can apply for during their studies and can pay only 50% of the amount back five years after the completion of their studies. Don’t the Americans wish to have something like that in the country? Certainly, but…..
One has to look at what the two presidential candidates have to offer on this topic, which despite Romney’s push for eliminating unions and favoring teachers and Obama’s push for reforming the education system on the elementary level (meaning K-12 grade schools), has ended in zero efforts. While it was a relief that the topic of education has been introduced during the last debate, neither Obama nor Romney has presented a basic concept for reforming the education system from the bottom up. This does not mean the K-12 education system but also the university system where tuition can be regulated, together with student loans, while at the same time, everyone would have an opportunity to attend college and either get a degree for their dream job or retrain themselves for a new profession. And while the President signed the Health Care and Student Loan Act in 2010, which provided an increase in certain grants, it still has not helped the situation that the students and college graduates have been in. And while the quality of education in academia in America could use some improvement to allow students to think and decide for themselves on their future career after college, the aforementioned aspect is of paramount of importance, as students would like to focus more on their studies instead of on their jobs to pay their students loans.
This definitely includes allowing them to do internships and study abroad in foreign countries, which the number of American students going to other countries for a semester is a fraction of their German and even European counterparts, who average two internships and at least one semester abroad during their 3-4 years at a university. During my time of my Master’s studies five years ago, I did four internships, one of which was for three months in Geneva, Switzerland, at an international organization. In order for the US to compete on the global scale, we need to veer away from testing students in schools based on their math and reading/ writing skills and focus on opportunities for them to succeed in the future, allowing them to gain the experience needed for them to compete on an international scale and not on the scale of just North America.
With two weeks away, the stakes are high for both Obama and Romney to win over the voters. The winner of the elections on 6 November will have to try harder to encourage students to go to college and not only obtain their degree, but allow them to explore society and see what they can do about the problems we have, to its benefit. It will not be done through increased tuition, and perhaps the Barfög program provided here in Germany will encourage students to find an orderly job so that they can pay off their debt with more time than with only six months after graduation. It will not be done through testing their competencies in schools but more towards interactive learning and a wider variety of humanity classes, including foreign languages, which is needed more than ever. Just a somber fact: an average European speaks four languages. The average American: one, if they can master it fluently.
I would like to end this critique with an anecdote by Ben Franklin which reads the following: “Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn.” I have always been a believer of Pestalozzi who encouraged involvement of his children through practical learning, claiming that the basic education can keep them from becoming the beast of society. Can you imagine what would happen to a person who is denied an education because of money and other circumstances that put them at a disadvantage? While we have not seen that problem and Germany still remains one of the economic engines of Europe and the world, the US is infested with monsters, who were denied the basic need and will to learn. These are the people who need the help in order to succeed, for they will be the one who will bring up the next generation. I hope the two candidates keep this in mind as they campaign to win the votes needed to win and in the end, be sworn into office on 20 January, 2013.