Sunday, October 26, 2008

The Cost of Education

Over the last week, I've had conversations with my university colleagues about the cost of a college education. In Germany, there isn't any cost. Students must house and feed themselves (as they would have to do even if they weren't in college), but there is no tuition. Eighteen-year-olds take a state-sponsored exam, and those who score well are given a free higher education (except for a modest activity fee and the cost of texts).

The cost of tuition at a good private college in the States often exceeds $30,000; state schools are much less, but the cost is rising. Students can get grants and scholarships, but these rarely cover the whole cost. Most students go into debt to attend college, sometimes into staggering debt. I asked one colleague if my German students knew how lucky they are, compared to American students. His response was interesting: "Is it luck, or is education a civil right, as well as a country's investment in its future?"

But a different slant was provided by another colleague: "I used to think it was good that students paid no tuition. But now I think they might value their classes more if they paid some modest amount for them." Certainly I've seen that phenomenon borne out when I taught college in Rochester; my best students were usually the older adults who were plunking down their own hard-earned money, not their parents' money, for their education.

I can see both sides of this issue. I don't know the answer. But I still think these German students are fortunate.


g d townshende said...

My girlfriend, who lives in Portugal, is currently pursuing her PhD. The Portuguese government is paying for her education via a grant, in monthly installments. They generally have 3 years to complete their program, but they can put in for a year extension if the time is needed. If she completes the program, then her education is on the government. If she fails, then she must pay back the grant. That's how it works there. She's almost done with her program. The grant money has run out, as her four years are up, but so long as she completes the course she doesn't have to pay anything back.

I'm not sure on which side of the fence I fall on this issue, although I wouldn't mind it if the government paid for my education.

Amy Sisson said...

I spent a year in (then West) Germany in the mid-1980s, attending Gymnasium as an exchange student. At the time, only about 1/3 of German students went to Gymnasium, and perhaps only 1/3 to 1/2 of those went on to university. The general attitude, and that of my host family, was that university students were lazy brats who didn't want to have to work like the rest of the population.

In 1989, I spent a semester in Sydney, Australia. There, students didn't so much apply to a specific university as to major course of study (economics, history, etc.); the "state" directed them where to go and paid them to do it, including living stipends. The equivalent to the bachelor's degree generally took three years, but it wasn't unheard of for a student to complete two years and then switch majors, which meant starting all over again from year one. I knew one student who was on his third major, and was in his seventh or eighth year as a student, at government expense -- all to earn a three-year degree.

I think students need to pay something towards their education. Our system in the U.S. certainly doesn't work as is, so I think some sort of middle ground is necessary.

Kendall said...

my best students were usually the older adults who were plunking down their own hard-earned money, not their parents' money, for their education.

Were they better students for that reason, or simply because they were making a conscious choice to go to college--and knew what they wanted--versus being "sent" there (like many kids are) and not knowing what they wanted out of life yet? ;-)

Mark said...

This brings me back again to the Mark Twain quote, "Don't let your schooling get in the way of your education."

Notice that neither Bill Gates nor Warren Buffet finished college. Apparently they went for the knowledge and not the sheepskin.

As for the government sponsorship: I can't honestly say good or bad. It is grey. Some will abuse anything that's available to them, some will use it and capitalize on it as it's meant to be.

As I recall when I was in the military and took classes at a community college, the Air Force reimbursed me, depending on my grades, for the class tuition minus the school's registration fee. The school gave a military discount on registration, and I mostly got As, so I typically paid about $10 per semester. I know of many parents who use a similar graded allowance system for their kids. Maybe this is a good compromise between the German and US models.

A.M. Lau said...

It's been my impression that many European systems have curriculums that are rather test-based. The German system seems to reward those who are good at test-taking, which is not necessarily demonstrative of those who would make good students.

I don't know if this is still true, but my husband's cousins in Ireland once told him about tests that they would take in middle school that would determine their whole life. Score high enough, and sure, the government will pay for you to go to college and become a physicist.

Don't do so well? Well, you can go to vo-tech school and learn to be a hair dresser, but if you want to do something else, tough luck, unless you got the cash to go private (which most people didn't).

James A. Ritchie said...

I'm not real fond of saying that the government ever pays for anything. Governments have no money except what they take from private citizens who earn it.

It's always the taxpayers who pay. Whether this is good or bad depends, I suppose, on how you feel about paying enough taxes to support such programs.

But however you feel about it, the government isn't paying.

The only think wrong with the U.S. system is that far too many are going to college in the false belief that a certificate outside the hard sciences is worth anything these days.

I'd say at least half those in college have no business at all being there, but they usually discover this only after they graduate.

Amy Sisson said...

In response to James A. Ritchie's comment, it sounds as though you're saying that half of college students don't belong there because their non-hard-science degrees will be worthless in the job market.

I wouldn't disagree if you said a lot of college students don't belong in college because they can't do the work. I believe that we sometimes place an overemphasis on college in the U.S., and that we somehow magically expect college to compensate for the fact that kids are graduating from high school without being able to read. Lots of kids do not have the intelligence or ability to take traditional college classes, and they shouldn't be forced into a path that will obviously not lead to success.

But I disagree about a non-hard-science degree being useless. I started with a bachelor's in English and never had any problem getting a job. I now have a Master's in Library Science and had a job lined up in that field before I graduated. These are not hard sciences, obviously, but I would object if someone said it meant I didn't belong in college in the first place. Similarly, other non-hard-science degrees, such as education, foreign languages, history, etc. can definitely lead to jobs not available to those without a college degree.

If I'm misunderstanding, my apologies.

Unknown said...

It is not quite right, that university education is free in Germany. Only in some states this is still the case. Anyway, I'm a student in Germany, not paying for university, but I still have to work for my housing and food besides getting money (as loan and as a "gift"), because my parents cannot afford to give me money. I wouldn't know, how to do things with additionally having to pay for schooling. But consider this: there is a much weaker net of schoolarships in Germany (almost none) and it is very hard to get a job at all. That's the big difference to the U.S.

bluesman miike Lindner said...

Amen, James.

Kendall said...

I disagree with James.

But it is true that a lot of times, the exact type of degree one has is irrelevant. I've seen lots of jobs in the U.S. requiring a degree, no matter what type. I understand this, mostly...but since I didn't complete my degree but have lots of experience, I find it frustrating.

(On the other paw, I haven't seriously looked for a job in a long time, so unless/until I decide to change jobs, it only hinders me in theory.)

Nancy Kress said...

There is a point being overlooked here -- the point of college is not only to get a job. It's to expand an enrich one's mind, to learn more and deeper than is possible in high school. Learning for its inner value, not just its economic value.

Mark said...

Yet another reason I come to your blog for cerebrally stimulating e-conversation Nancy!

I've met a few millionaires who barely squeeked out of high school. I've met many people with Bachelors or higher degrees (including Engineering/tech) who are financially poor (including me).

I do totally agree with college making one a better personality, though.