Universities in U.S. and Germany share problems

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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.