As the year comes to a close, it’s natural to look back at where we’ve come from. 2016 was Beyond the States’ first full year and it was an amazing one. We launched our database in March. Jennifer visited schools in Germany, France, and the Netherlands. She visited schools and presented to groups in Illinois, Maryland, Virginia and North Carolina. We sent out 39 newsletters and posted 32 entries on our blog. Right now, Over 1,300 people receive our weekly newsletter and we have over 1,100 Likes on Facebook. As a way to look back, here are the seven blog posts of 2016 that you may have missed.
Did you ever wonder what makes one person excited about college in Europe when most peers are going the conventional route? The answer may just lie in the individual’s threshold for collective behavior that we learned about from Malcolm Gladwell’s excellent podcast, Revisionist History.
Episode 5: College in Europe: What You Need to Know
In this podcast, Jenn covers the basic concepts about going to college in Europe. She explains the different types of higher education institutions in Europe, the types of degree programs, along with housing and student life.
How useful are college rankings actually? What do they measure? Do the factors that rankings measure map to the undergrad experience? Are there excellent schools that aren’t ranked? How can one determine whether a school would be a good fit if it is not ranked? Jenn talks with Miwa Kitmura, Head of External Relations from Vesalius College in Brussels to answer these questions and more in this episode of the Beyond the States podcast. They also talk about the areas students should investigate to determine school quality.
As many of you know, I’ve been reading great books recently about some of the problems with higher education in the US. You probably saw previous blogs about the problems regarding admissions and rising costs that we face. But what if you have the money and are willing to play the admissions games? Will the end result of your top US college choice be worth it? According to my reading, the answer is no. Let’s set aside the return of investment, as it relates to employability (we touched on that here). Let’s talk about the quality of the learning experience that undergraduates receive on campus.
Each year I must complete a number of continuing education units to keep my social work license active. There is nothing more exhausting and mind numbing than sitting through lectures – even when the content is somewhat interesting or relevant. Thus, I wasn’t surprised by the study by Joi Ito. Ito is a an entrepreneur and Director of the MIT Media Lab. He monitored the brain activity of a student for a week and found that the brain is in its most dormant state during lectures, more so than while asleep! I don’t think this is a shock to most of us. Few would argue that passive learning is more effective than active learning. Yet lectures are still used. Many students just choose not to go, while others attend and mindlessly copy down what the professor is saying. Most Likley to Succeed: Preparing Our Kids for the Innovation Era notes Richard Arun’s findings that the majority of college students learn little or nothing on the important dimensions of critical thinking and analysis and complex reasoning.
Problem #2-Teaching is Not the Priority
When small seminar classes do occur at many American universities, they are often led by graduate students instead of the professors. As a matter of a fact, in The Faculty Lounges: And Other Reasons You Won’t Get the College Education You Paid For former Wall Street Journal editorial staff member, Naomi Schaefer Riley, writes of a study done by the Journal of Higher Education that concludes that the more time a college professor spends teaching, the less he or she gets paid. This finding applied to both big research universities and small liberal arts colleges. Tenure is based, in large part, on the volume of research. Thus, as Wagner and Dintersmith said in Most Likely to Succeed: Preparing Our Kids for the Innovation Era, “The net result is that college faculty are not selected, motivated, or incentivized to be inspiring educators”. They go on to quote Richard Keeling and Richard Hersch’s book, We’re Losing our Minds:Rethinking American Higher Education, which notes that “Other priorities-higher rankings, growing enrollment, winning teams, bigger and better facilities, more revenue from sideline businesses, more research grants-have replaced learning as the primary touchstone for decision making”.
Solutions Exist in Europe
College in Europe is a solution to many of these problems. The majority of schools I have visited do not use lectures as their primary mode of teaching, though, of course, this is not the case for all 1,500 programs we list. Even courses that do involve lectures usually have regular, small seminars-led by the actual professor, not a teaching assistant! Students in many countries (particularly in Northern Europe where there is a flat hierarchy) are encouraged to bring their own points of views to discussion even when, actually especially when, those viewpoints differ from the professors. Not only is this a form of more active and deep learning, but it also helps develop critical thinking skills. Students at Universities of Applied Sciences are taught how to apply the knowledge they are learning to the real world which also deepens the learning experience.
In Excellent Sheep, William Deresiewicz proposes that a liberal arts education is the solution to these problems, but notes that many of the liberal arts schools in the US are succumbing to the pressures to conform to models used by the Ivies instead of what he sees as a “true liberal arts education”. While I think that liberal arts program are wonderful, I believe a teaching style that promotes 21st century skills of critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity (http://www.nea.org/tools/52217.htm) can be done with any content, be it the humanities or business.
Despite the reduced emphasis on the humanities, many European programs have the qualities that Deresiewicz calls out as strengths of the ideal liberal arts education. Professors in Europe devote a large portion of their time to teaching. Students get to know the professors outside of class, through Friday bars in Denmark, the academic and social activities through the department based study associations across Europe, or the advisory capacity they serve in many schools. Students work together in groups as peers, not rivals, and have input into important matters in the school and department level through organizations like student unions.
The fact is, there are many excellent schools in the US. Some have managed to look at applicants as something beyond their checklist of achievements, some have reasonable tuition rates, some have professors that actively teach and incredibly engaged students. Deresiewicz points to Kenyon and Wesleyan as schools that “retained their allegiance to real educational values”. The problem is that these schools have selectivity rates ranging from 22-25% and annual tuition costs are around $49,000 per year. I have yet to find a school that addresses all three of my issues as they pertain to admissions process, cost, and the undergraduate experience. Until then (and probably after then as well), my kids will be applying exclusively to schools in Europe.
Though I would say that both Tom and I are comfortable with uncertainty, I admit that he is more likely to explore and embrace new or unconventional ideas long before they hit the mainstream. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve teased him for some seemingly kooky health idea he started incorporating into his routine. From using coconut oil for just about everything to eating fermented foods for gut health. Sure enough, soon after I would read about the same thing in the New York Times or see a book review about the microbiome. Before I knew it, many of these “kooky” ideas were much more mainstream and even I was on board. Luckily, Tom is very good about not lording “I told you so” over me in these instances…
As you know, we are passionate about young people and parents knowing about their college options in Europe. Both the drawbacks of the US system and benefits of Europe are so incredibly clear that we wonder why more people haven’t already packed their bags. Sure, the lack of information out there (until we came along…) is part of it, but why else? Why hasn’t this idea caught on? We listened to an episode of Malcolm Gladwell‘s great podcast Revisionist History called “The Big Man Can’t Shoot” which really crystallized this to us. It talks about how some people have a harder time making decisions that are outside of group norms than others, even when the benefits of changing are quite clear (Gladwell’s interview on the Tim Ferriss Show is excellent. He gives the advice that US students should get out of the US and go to Europe. — Tom).
If you are already exploring the option of college in Europe, you likely have what sociologist Mark Granovetter refers to as a “low threshold”. The threshold Granovetter refers to is “the number or proportion of people who must make one decision before a given actor does so”. This means that you are more comfortable making decisions based on reasoning or instinct as opposed to what the crowd does. We believe that this trait is crucial for true success in life. You may also be somewhere in the middle for threshold. While you don’t need the group approval, you want to explore more data before making decisions based on unconventional ideas. If we were to put threshold on a scale of 1-10, Tom would probably be a 1 or 2 and I would be closer to a 4-5.
For those of you who are more like me, I have a few summer reading/watching suggestions that will point to the fact that looking for alternatives to the problems we have in higher education here is not a hare-brained idea, despite the fact that you’re the only one in your peer group who’s doing it.
When I started to document the colleges in Europe with English-taught degree programs, I realized that there were many terms and concepts I needed to understand before I could delve in too deeply. Though it’s not especially exciting information, exploring possibilities for studying in Europe can be overwhelming without knowledge on these topics.
Below is some of the information you need to know before you start this journey.
Bologna Process Codifies Studying in Europe
Things have changed a lot in European higher education in the past couple of decades. In 1999, the Bologna declaration was signed by Education Ministers from 29 European countries. The purpose of the declaration was to create a European Higher Education Area with comparable and understandable degrees and credits across its member states. This enabled greater mobility for students in the EU. Degrees across the participating countries coordinated the duration and structure of degrees which makes learning outcomes consistent and helps with quality control. There are now 47 participating countries. This is also helpful to US students who get their bachelors in Europe, but want to get their masters in the US. Their qualifications and education are much more understandable to the admissions officers in the US than in the past.
European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System (ECTS)
One creation of the Bologna Process, was that of the European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System, which is a standardized system of cumulative and transferable credits across the EU. These are basically like credit hours. In the US, credit hours are usually put in terms of classroom hours (the 12 hours of credit a student gets in a semester means that they had 12 hours of time in class). ECTS hours are an estimate of the total amount of time the student is expected to put into the class (including classroom hours, reading, group work, studying for exams, etc). One full time academic year is 60 ECTS and, depending on the school and program, it takes 180-240 ECTS to receive a bachelors (which you might also see referred to as first cycle). Full time students are generally in class for 10-12 hours per week, with an additional 30 hours of study expectations outside of the classroom.
Universities, University Colleges, University of Applied Sciences
Almost every country in Europe has English bachelor degree programs at Universities and Universities of Applied Sciences (UAS). Belgium and the Netherlands throw University Colleges in the mix as well. These terms pertain only to public schools and most countries also have private schools offering bachelor’s degrees in English. Here’s the low down on what each of these are:
Universities are academic and research based. They can award bachelors, masters, and doctorate degrees. They are similar to universities in the US in that students are focused on research, learn to be analytical, and to present arguments (as opposed to preparing for a vocation). Many university students go straight to a master’s degree program.
Universities of Applied Sciences (UAS)
University of Applied Sciences offer a practical higher vocational education for a specific profession. There is more of an emphasis on learning through application than through research. Internships are generally required in these programs, as the focus at UAS schools is to provide students with the skills, knowledge, and competencies needed for the professional world.
You are likely to see degrees in Business, Engineering, Digital Arts, Computer Science at University of Applied Sciences (and at Universities, as there is some overlap). You are not likely to see UAS programs in the Humanities or Natural Sciences, as both generally require a higher degree before entering the field. I think this is a really cool concept as career preparedness seems to really lack in the US schools. Students can still go on for a master’s degree, but usually need semester or so of required courses to do so.
Then there are University Colleges. In the Netherlands, the University Colleges offer an honors level liberal arts degree. They are part of a university, but classes, living, clubs and such are self-contained. There are additional admission requirements as well as requirements for living on campus (1-3 years depending on the school). Belgium also has University Colleges, but they are not liberal arts programs. In Belgium, the University College is affiliated with the university but not part of the university like in the Netherlands. The main difference between in Belgium is that University Colleges in Belgium do not offer doctorate degrees.
Applying to a Program
When you apply to college in the US, you are generally applying to the school and sometimes can state a major when you apply. Generally speaking, in Europe you are applying to a specific program at a school. Some students might find this overwhelming, but it is not much different than the process of declaring a major.
You will find that you have programs that cover fairly from the broad categories. Examples would include, Business Administration, Information Technology, Environment and Energy, Philosophy, International Relations, and many more. Then you will find some programs that are more specific and/or a combination of more than one study field. Examples are Sustainable Use of Natural Resources, Business Information Technology, Luxury Goods Management, International Wine Business. There is also a program that is called Economics, Politics and Social Thought and another which combines Humanities and Social Sciences (Humanities, Society and Culture). I think the options are super exciting, but if you are more of a traditionalist, there are an abundance of liberal arts program choices as well.
Erasmus Student Networks (ESN)
Erasmus is a program to promote study abroad programs (within other European countries) to European students. There are also Erasmus Student Networks (ESN) at schools across Europe. “Erasmus Student Network (ESN) is a non-profit international student organisation. Our mission is to represent international students, thus provide opportunities for cultural understanding and self-development under the principle of Students Helping Students.”
The Erasmus Student Network is the biggest student association in Europe. On each campus, these are student run organizations for international students that organize cultural, information, and social events. They organize parties (LOTS of parties) and trips as well. Activities may include pub crawls, yoga, acclimation programs for new students (including tandem language learning), weekend trips, trips during breaks, international dinners. And did I mention lots of parties?
Gauging Equivalency across Secondary Education Systems
Before admitting a student, schools want to know that the high school education the applicant had is equivalent to the ones students receive in that country. The different countries and schools have different requirements for applicants from various countries. For instance, students who are graduating with a regular US high school diploma must also have at least 3 AP courses with scores of at least 3 in Italy, Norway, the Netherlands, Denmark, and for some schools in Switzerland. In Lithuania and Germany, US students don’t need the AP courses, but must submit SAT or ACT scores. Private schools across the EU may or may not require AP classes or test scores for US students, depending on the school and program.
IB diplomas-and why you are lucky if you have one!
The International Baccalaureate® (IB) Diploma Programme (DP) is one of the world’s most exciting educational courses for 16-19 year olds. It focuses on personal, professional and academic development and is globally recognized by universities for the holistic and rigorous education it provides. – IBO.org
Good news for students graduating with an IB diploma-you get to bypass all these extra requirements! The specific requirements needed for an IB diploma allow students to apply to college in Europe with automatic equivalency. One less hoop to jump through!
Binding Study Advice (BSA)
BSA is a common practice at schools in the Netherlands and can be found at other some other schools in the EU as well (though it may have a different name). Each school has different requirements about how many classes students must pass each year. At the end of the first year, a student’s academic progress is evaluated and a decision is made by the school as to whether or not the student can continue her studies the following year. Many schools offer a non-binding evaluation after the first semester before the binding decision is made at the end of the year which can serve as a warning for students who aren’t on track.