European Universities vs. American Universities: We Win

European universities are nothing like American colleges and universities.

That’s the conclusion that I drew during our family’s two-week vacation in Spain and France. We were visiting my daughter Caitlin, who has been attending the University of Barcelona for two semesters.

During the vacation, I kept getting into conversations with Europeans about their universities. I had some knowledge about European universities, but the conversations reinforced what I already believed:

Compared to the European universities, Americans are very, very fortunate to possess their own unique higher-education system.

In Europe, a college education is cheap or even free and offer no frills. In Europe, you won’t find the cute liberal arts colleges where the classes are small and the professors are eager to be mentors. In Europe, classes are typically held lecture-style and professors don’t consider their roles to be mentors.  But size alone doesn’t explain the difference. Most Americans, after all, attend large state schools.

At the University of Barcelona and many other European universities, there is no central campus. The university buildings are scattered across the city. Lots of these buildings look more like office complexes. There is no heart of the university. No quadrangle to meet. No dormitories. No sports teams. No mascots.

In a subway in Paris, I struck up a conversation with a young Parisian attorney, who told me that he had gotten his MBA at the University of Chicago. He said he loved going to the University of Chicago and what he really appreciated was being about to touch his professors. I thought it was a curious choice of words, but Caitlin explained that from her experience in Europe the professors stand on raised platforms during lectures and their desk are equipped with see-through panels that separate them from pupils.

I also struck up a conversation with a physician in Great Britain, who had attended the University of Oxford. He said he wished that Great Britain offered liberal arts colleges as they do in The States. At Oxford, he only got one year to pursue a broad array of liberal arts before he was required to only take courses in his major.

We all like to gripe about higher-education in the United States, with cost being the No. 1 complaint.  I thought, however, that I’d give everyone a reason to feel fortunate that our children will be receiving their college degrees from institutions in this country.

Lynn O’Shaughnessy is the author of The College Solution and she also writes a college blog for CBSMoneyWatch. Follow her on Twitter.

Further Reading:

German University: Roughing It In College

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31 Responses to European Universities vs. American Universities: We Win

  1. Dan December 21, 2014 at 6:33 pm #

    In all seriousness? You were able to assess the quality of the European academic institutions within a two-week family holiday? Gosh, you must have been working a lot during that time. Respect!

    First off, Spain, France and the UK aren’t representative for the whole of Europe. Secondly, journalism is supposed to be neutral (i.e. unbiased etc)…putting a “We win” into the headline therefore isn’t very professional (you already lost me as a reader even before the article actually starts). Thirdly, the points that you do actually make are ridiculous, like “The buildings look more like office complexes”, “the buildings are scattered across the city” and so on. This may apply to some European universities but definitely not to the majority. And even if that was true for every university in Europe, what would be the problem? People usually don’t attend university to look at beautiful buildings. And guess what, students can meet outside a university campus just as well. I could go on like that for hours because there is not a single sentence that I can agree on but I got better things to do.

    Read the following article and tell your readers again that they should feel fortunate for their kids to be receiving their degrees in the US while education is regarded as a human right in most European countries like Germany and therefore free, thus so extremely worse than in the US.

    http://www.forbes.com/sites/specialfeatures/2013/08/07/how-the-college-debt-is-crippling-students-parents-and-the-economy/

    Btw after reading the article I just had to know who is responsible for such poor content so I read through (your) “About Lynn”-site……….coming across statements like “Best-selling author/journalist” …I heavily doubt that. At least with the quality standards applied to the article about European universities you wouldn’t even get an internship position at any publisher, at least in Europe you wouldn’t. Most definitely not.

    Overestimating yourself maybe? !
    And not by a little!

    My suggestion for the future: think first, then write. And thinking implies getting some proper information in your head first (hint: biases, clichés etc. are not considered as proper information, at least not by intelligent people).

  2. Mike December 12, 2014 at 10:03 am #

    I don’t find any value in your arguments and wouldn’t buy your book. Sounds like most other commenters agree. There’s too much anger about the high cost and low benefit to American colleges, and you’re not going to change our minds with your fluff.

    • andy December 21, 2014 at 5:05 am #

      Ver interesting to read for someone in the process of choosing where to go to college. I agree, rankings give you no real information. Does anyone know about art colleges? Faculty and teaching quality is what I am looking at………..? Interiors and space design. All colleges are always stronger in some areas than others, though they may offer a whole range of subjects. Europe or the U.S?

  3. ephiroll October 27, 2014 at 1:00 pm #

    ‘No sports teams. No mascots.’

    The author just made us all look like idiots with these two lines. You go to college to learn, not to play sports, not to go to prep rallies, not to learn libral arts that your lazy butt should be learning and reading on your own. You learn. Either learn or stop whining and drop out. Or better yet, go get a fake a$$ degree from North Carolina if you can’t handle real schooling.

  4. Arthur October 7, 2014 at 1:04 am #

    I am an American applying to Universities in America and I find it ridiculous that you pass off the fact that colleges are expensive here as something that seems to be no big deal. I am currently upset right now because my dream school is too expensive (60k a year??) and the other schools do ask for a lot as well. I want to go to medical school eventually so I really can’t place myself in debt during undergrad. Money should not prevent us from receiving an adequate education and I honestly wish Universities were cheaper here like they are in Europe. money is a huge deal especially since student loan debts are even worse than credit card debts here

  5. Francois March 3, 2014 at 4:37 pm #

    The British and the US research are made for rankings, nobel prizes and upper-classes, the German research is made for the manufacturing sector and the world market. You have several universities and “Hochschulen” in a radius of 100 kilometers all over Germany. Everybody can study. This is the difference. In reality the US are just as long attractive for foreign scientists as the FED simulates growth! I miss any efficiency in the US system. There is a huge disproportion between the ranking of US universities and the real impact of US goods on the world market. Of course the US have very good high-tech products, but a economy of 320 million people cannot live from some top-research centers and some giants like Apple, Microsoft, Boing, Intel etc. Where is the niche research in US? Where is the foundation of the American system?

  6. Small not better February 24, 2014 at 6:00 am #

    I have been educated in 3 countries.

    I’m sorry, but your naive assumptions fail to do European institutes justice. Firstly, in Europe, if you cannot read and write at a high level, college and university are out of your league…they only accept the top eschelons. As a result, people are there to study and acquire knowledge and thought processes, not some warm, fuzzy feeling on a campus.

    There is a lot of socializing…academic socializing, not puking with your frat brats because you had too much alcohol or pot. I hate to say it, but i would put a vocational school grad in europe’s 12th grade equivalent against American highschoolers, and i am pretty sure who is going to succeedd. Unfortunately, statistcs bear this out.

    As for lack of mentors, that is utter rubbish. Introductory classes are often auditorium style, but there are small group breakouts. Higher level classes sometimes only had four or five students.

    America will regain its former glory when it values education and teachers, not curricula, sports stars, business giants or buildings. We spend more per capita on compulsory education and have significantly less to show for it.

  7. Adriana February 15, 2014 at 4:54 am #

    Your article is clearly biased and you need to reconsider your point of view about European college education. After getting my bachelor in France I have been brought to teach my mother tongue in the U.S

    These 3 years of studying gave me an almost fluent level in English, more than enough to be able to teach there by myself. But when I see the level of the students attending college in America (especially the foreign languages classes), I can only be depressed by how these guys waste their money everyday. None of them, even among the seniors or those who actually been to a foreign country, are fluent, or even advanced in the idiom they are studying.

    To provide a fresh perspective here, I had the feeling that students in my department were constantly being seduced into staying in classes where the level was so low that it could have been compared to what you would do in a random high school. As a company, I would definitely NOT have hired any person coming from there, even though they can mention a major/minor in their resume, because they can actually do very little when it comes to speaking or even writing.

    To conclude, free education gave me critical thinking, a great deal of knowledge, maturity, and the possibility to dedicate entirely to my studies without having to take a job on the side because tuition is too expensive. Expensive private universities are robbing their students who will never get the knowledge and discipline they deserve for these prices, and are lowering the educational level of their country. They get rich, though.

  8. Jason December 28, 2013 at 6:56 am #

    My personal opinion on education in Europe versus USA is that in Europe you benefit from low cost higher education and similar yer lower quality schooling. This being said, the majority of the tuition fees a person is expected to pay in America is covered by ludicrously high sales and income taxes.

    The US university system works differently but there are still cheaper alternatives by going to a community/state run college first then transferring you credits over to a 4 year institution and finishing off your 2 years and getting your bachelor’s. USA also provides other incentives for those that excel at sport and very bright and talented and sometimes offer a massive discount on their tuition. Also investing money in your education most likely pays off and enables you to get a higher paying job. The US on average earns per capita a lot lot more than the most europeans and taxes are lower. The reason for this is that the individual must look after their own affairs.

    Europe offers low cost education but the ability to earn the same as someone in USA is unlikely. So it works out in the end, spend less, earn less. Spend more, earn more.

    Both systems have their problems and benefits but i personally prefer the US system but requires a lot of debt upfront in order to a degree. Europe requires less of personal investment but the opportunities and earnings are far limited.

    I think europe has a more fairer system for all and the US has a reward based system. Put in the money and the work and you get it back plus more.

    I would class both as a tie because it is too hard to decide what is a pro or a con of either education system.

  9. Sabukhi August 12, 2013 at 12:17 am #

    I’m studying in the Czech republic (Graduate school) and I’ve been to US last month as a turist. I was talking with a math professor who teaches undergraduate students. I asked him to show me the books they use in the classes. When I saw them what he teaches, I was literally shocked. I’ve done all this stuff in my gymnazium (high school).

    I paid nothing when I was in high school and I pay nothing in my university. However I’m getting a better education than some people in US who pay thousands of dollars per month.

    So next time please think before you blink.

  10. Mauricio August 11, 2013 at 3:49 am #

    Your arguments are the most superficial ones I have ever heard. You should definitely continue attending your U.S. University. You will undoubtedly find those great things there… plus a great debt to enjoy for many years…

  11. Ali June 13, 2013 at 11:28 am #

    I think your arguments are invalid…
    Do you know that the education system in Europe is WAY better than the American one (i’m only referring to USA). For example, what kids in USA learn in high school, we already know it from way earlier…
    In terms of university, Europe has some great ones and we do have dorms (at least in mine)…and as for the mascot thing, well that’s an American thing…

    • Tom October 20, 2014 at 11:49 pm #

      I think what a lot of people neglect when criticizing American schools is that in the USA, there is a whole new variable which is unmatched in any other country. There are so many immigrants and diverse students all attending the same schools. Teachers are faced with the task of teaching every student the same information and its a lot harder when there are cultural and language barriers. The schooling may not be as good in the US, but that;s just because it’s harder to teach.

      I’m glad that i’m an IB Student here in Massachusetts (which by the way has way better colleges than anywhere else in the world).

  12. VikingPrincess June 8, 2013 at 4:13 am #

    Hello people

    Here is what I have experienced.

    I am looking at Uni of Helsinki, Finland, and looking at UCLA / CSU systems.
    Hands down Uni of Helsinki wins in CompSci. they got more classes and more budget to do stuff than UC.CSU … CSU Northridge computer science is a joke!

    Here comes another issue which is driving me bananas.
    Here in the US, a student is driven to get an A. When he/she is out of the class, everything he/she learned flies out!
    You do not see this in Europe, you are taught to think.

    Right now i am sitting in community college just for the kicks picking up comp sci classes and i realized that if you dont sit your ass down and teach yourself, professor will not be able to help cause he/she is has 40 people who either need a class just to get financial aid or just
    refresh and not helping the ones that need help. SOOO having said that… If you want to learn, YOU WILL LEARN regardless of the school cost. US school cost is a disaster it does not justify the cost. European school is better in many many ways.

  13. keegan June 5, 2013 at 11:07 am #

    I emailed them not that long after I posted that
    Just waiting for response back. I have to agree that American universitys are just money based. I looked into m.I.t its like 160000 for 4 years its redicul1us

  14. keegan June 5, 2013 at 3:14 am #

    I am looking to attnd the. Uni. versitià di bologna I have heard from one person that it costs thousands apon thousands of dollars but I heard from the new York times that international students only pay like $1500 a year which should I believe

    • Lynn O'Shaughnessy June 5, 2013 at 3:24 am #

      Keegan,

      Contact the school directly and find out.

      Lynn O’Shaughnessy

  15. Kylie May 11, 2013 at 6:16 pm #

    I was so discouraged when I read the article because I am an American and I want to go to a European university for a degree in creative writing. I was happy to read the comments and find out that the article is complete rubbish! It’s nearly impossible to find reliable information about European universities! Everyone here is much like the article, so convinced that America is the “god” of higher-level of education that no one tells me anything. If anyone has any real information to help me e-mail me at kylieq3@yahoo.com!

  16. Susan April 10, 2013 at 3:01 am #

    From your comments it seems that you have a very limited perspective, probably based upon your limited experience with this subject and possibly due to the bias from the few people you interviewed.
    I would suggest that in order to put forth a more open-minded article for those people seeking information that you would look further into the subject. Being an educator in the USA and having been a European university student, I have an insight into both sides. I am neither American nor European.
    Your article reads like an American 6th grade essay! It is vague,lacking research, narrow-minded and utterly mis-leading. I truly hope no one is reading this looking for valid information.

  17. whatever March 28, 2013 at 9:07 pm #

    You clearly are the typical “dumb American” brainwashed to believe everything American is better. And for the record I live in the USA so no I am not “anti-USA”, I am however, anti stupidity..
    you do realize that European education is of a much higher level than American right .. ? Read into a few official studies about the subject and you’ll quickly feel sorry for ever writing such a completely ridiculous article..

  18. Jemand Irgendwer December 7, 2012 at 3:18 pm #

    Wow, this article is so vague and misleading. You need a broader perspective on European universities. I go to uni in Maastricht, Holland and we have small classes where teachers see themselves as mentors and help you. Don’t be so close-minded about this and visit more places. Barcelona is something special but a great university

  19. LUCIE October 26, 2012 at 10:08 pm #

    That´s so wrong what you publish here. I am from Germany and I KNOW that German and other colleges in Europe have a very high standard and great education! That´s why germany and others are likely to get jobs in foreign countries since people know that our education is really good. I am German and I am studying in Utah currently, it is great, but very expensive and I think i will pursue a PhD in Europe somewhere.

  20. Derrek July 16, 2012 at 5:10 am #

    Your idea of higher education seems to be highly flawed.

    1. “In Europe, you won’t find the cute liberal arts colleges where the classes are small and the professors are eager to be mentors.” You don’t usually find that in American universities either. That’s for K-12th grade. You’re at college to become an adult, further your education, and learn to do things on your own. If your student still needs personal attention and a “mentor” they shouldn’t be in college.

    2. “Lots of these buildings look more like office complexes. There is no heart of the university. No quadrangle to meet. No dormitories. No sports teams. No mascots.” Again, this is higher education we’re talking about. Sure these things might be fun in America, but if anything they distract students from their REAL mission in college, and that’s to be successful, mature, and get a better education.

    3. “At Oxford, he only got one year to pursue a broad array of liberal arts before he was required to only take courses in his major.” That’s the whole reason we major in college. This is what college is FOR. We get a board enough education and plenty of chances to pursue interests in middle/high school. College is about preparing you for a professional job, which means you need to be focusing on your major.

    You also don’t really seem to state why these things are “bad” from an educational point of view. You may have talked to a few people, but you can do that here in America an find a lot of dissatisfied students. Nowhere in this article do you discuss the level of education they receive. If their schools are cheaper (often free) and they get a similar education, is it really worth it to Americans to spend thousands of dollars a year for things like mascots and sports? You need to research more countries and interview a large range of people before you make assumptions. Your idea of life in college even in America seems really flawed. I have a BA degree from Texas Tech University and working on my masters from New York University.

    • Josef November 5, 2013 at 6:59 pm #

      As an English professor in Germany, I completely agree with the Lynn. The degree of education you receive in the United States is far better than the degree you receive abroad. That doesn’t mean there aren’t exceptions. Oxford and Cambridge are examples of these exceptions.

      In the top 10 schools, the US takes credit for 80%, while the UK takes credit for the other 20%

      http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/world-university-rankings/2013-14/world-ranking

  21. objetpetita June 14, 2012 at 10:14 am #

    The need to have comforters/pacifiers like quads and mascots is typical of a dumbed down sickly sweet country that hasn’t grown up…

  22. Veronica Wessler October 25, 2010 at 11:02 am #

    College is not just for sports, mascots, etc. We have this in American high schools. I attend college in Germany, and frankly, I believe that not only is the education better here, but I also don’t miss the school sports, raggy mascot costumes, but yes, most of all I don’t miss waking up knowing I will need to work half my life for my education. I agree with the statement above. You were there for two weeks.

    • Jason September 21, 2012 at 7:01 pm #

      http://www.arwu.org/ARWU2010.jsp
      What rank is your German school? It appears that it could not make it into the top 50 universities in the world. What a shame.

      • Francois March 3, 2014 at 4:55 pm #

        A ranking is something for politicians, not for scientists. Scientists research at institutes in Germany not at universities. I think, the US rankings are garbage. You cannot compare different systems. US universities need a good ranking of course — they are mainly financed by private institutions. Therefore they make their o w n chauvinistic rankings. It is easy for an institution like the Havard University to claim to be the “best” in the World. This is just the size, not the quality! Do you really think, that the “old-fashioned” nobel prize committee is objective?

  23. ?????????????? October 1, 2010 at 6:47 am #

    I got my BA in political science at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, PA, briefly attended the University of Baltimore Law School (I eventually left law school in good standing due to general disillusionment with the legal industry) and later completed my MSc in International Relations and foreign languages at Royal Holloway, University of London in Egham, Surrey, UK and also received certificate degrees in foreign languages from the London School of Economics and Political Science in London and the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.

    I must say that your perspective is baffling to me and it really doesn’t appear that you’ve done any serious investigation into the subject. My time at these two school as well as within both the UK and US educational systems made me realize some sad truths about what I had always believed about US education. Sadly, it’s primarily money driven for one thing and the education in our liberal arts colleges is mainly fluff…good parties though, those I did enjoy but the education wasn’t as good as I got elsewhere (and there are apparently only 39 other colleges ranked higher than mine in the US) and then there is the price and the loans. I paid 3 times what my EU counterparts did to get a masters and it was still a deal compared to what my expenses would have been in the US. Plus, I feel I got so much more than I ever could have in the US; I doubt you would see the advantages during a 2 week family vacation.

    I want to get a PhD but I want to keep the loans down. I’ve already completely and totally given up on applying to US school because my experience has taught me that, frankly (and I hate saying this), they are more expensive and nowhere near as good as my options elsewhere. And, while I almost want to go to a US school based on sheer patriotism, I realize how foolish that would be (the same US school system is keeping so many in massive debt).

    So, my question to you is, if I have to take US based loans, which would you advise. Additionally, what are your thoughts on this.. or any thing related to getting rid of existing loans. Can I return my degree for a refund? Thanks

  24. Dave Salamander September 16, 2010 at 12:45 am #

    You need a wider perspective. Visit institutions in Sweden, Denmark, Switzerland and other countries and then come back to the table.

    • LUCIE October 26, 2012 at 10:09 pm #

      yes, i agree!

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