Is it difficult for UCLA to get good grades?

Universities in the USA and Germany: surprising similarities and weighty differences

The USA is the leading scientific nation in the world, which is not only proven by the annual distribution of the Nobel Prizes. Top universities such as Harvard, Stanford and Yale also top international rankings. But there are also average universities, long study periods and dropouts in the USA. A look behind the scenes.

"America, you're better off" - that is the refrain of many university policy discussions in Germany. The USA certainly has many of the world's best universities, regardless of the rankings and criteria. There is no doubt that the country continues to be at the center of the international science system. So it's no wonder that we look, sometimes anxiously, sometimes ambitiously, for "benchmarks" or role models across the Atlantic. If the focus is only on top universities such as Harvard, Stanford or MIT, the comparison triggers depression rather than competition in view of their abundant resources. German universities can probably learn more from good state universities in the USA.

Many of our discussions critically or enthusiastically refer to an "Anglo-American" higher education system in which neither British nor American universities would recognize themselves. On closer inspection, there are some surprising similarities between the USA and Germany, but also serious differences, both well-known and often overlooked.

In the USA, the mass university with high participation in education is two to three decades older than in Germany. Nevertheless, a number of the associated problems have not been resolved there, too, a sign that there are probably no patent remedies for educational policy challenges. Here as there, the standard period of study is exceeded by around half; around a third of new students never graduate. Only 57.1 percent of students who began full-time studies in 1999 for a bachelor's degree had achieved that degree six years later; after the standard study period of four years, it is just a good third. At the non-profit private universities, the graduation rate after six years is 64 percent, somewhat higher than the average, in the younger "for profit" sector, however, at 29 percent, it is dramatically lower than at the state universities (54 percent).

The duration of studies up to the successful completion of the nominally four-year Bachelor's degree is 6.2 years at public universities and 5.3 years at private universities. At top universities like Princeton or Harvard, over 95 percent of students are finished in six years, but even at Berkeley or UCLA the percentage has dropped below 90 percent; from 60th place onwards, 75 percent are hardly ever surpassed.

The duration of the doctoral program, which is usually started in the USA without a previous master’s degree, averages 7.5 years; the average age of the graduates is 33.3 years, slightly higher than in Germany (32.8 years). Ten years after starting their doctoral studies, 56.6 percent of candidates in the USA have actually obtained a PhD.

In Germany as in the USA, children from wealthy and educated families have better chances of entering higher education, but the overrepresentation of university graduates is even higher in Germany: In the USA they are 76 percent more represented than the proportion of university graduates in the fathers generation would correspond to us even by 131 percent.

In the USA, the federal government pays a larger share because the individual states do not co-finance the national research organizations.

Germany and the USA spend between 2.5 percent and 2.7 percent of their gross domestic product on research and development (R&D). The research output of the two science systems (including the much more important non-university public research institutes in Germany) is somewhat proportional: German research produced 8.4 percent of the publications included in the Science Citation Index in 2005, while the USA had four and a half times as much R&D expenditure for 30 , 8 percent of the SCI entries.

The "supervision ratio", i.e. the ratio of students and academic staff, is similar: According to OECD statistics, there are a good 12 students for every scientist at German universities, and just under 16 in the USA.

But the first major structural difference is only a small step away: the personnel structure. Almost half of the academic staff at US universities are professors, around a third of whom are assistant professors, who do not yet have a permanent position, but who are mostly on a "tenure track", at the end of which, if the evaluation is positive, the position is permanent. In Germany, on the other hand, less than a quarter of academics at universities are professors, and young German researchers are at an age when their American colleagues are already holding their first (assistant) professorship, usually assistants with fixed-term employment contracts - and little or no teaching commitment.

On the other hand, a large part of the teaching at American universities is done by part-time workers who have little chance of finding a permanent position: Overall, the proportion of these part-time workers has increased from a third to almost half in the last 20 years.

At the research universities, however, it is only a quarter; in return, doctoral students there carry a considerable part of the teaching as "teaching assistants". While only a good quarter of the students are enrolled at the research universities, almost half of the full-time academic staff work there. Overall, in this sector, which can best be compared with German universities, the ratio of academic staff to students is 1 to 13 (at German universities 1 to 10). The statistical "supervision ratio" at German universities, which is surprisingly good in comparison, results to a large extent from the fact that many academic staff are counted who do not teach (independently).

Another fundamental difference concerns the relationship between universities and the employment system. About half of the undergraduate course is devoted to general education courses that are not directly related to the main subject ("major"). The relatively weak specialization in the first degree is usually not compensated for by subsequent postgraduate studies. Rather, the overwhelming majority of Bachelor's graduates go to work, and only a minority return to university to acquire a higher degree. Ten years later, only 26 percent of the bachelor's graduates in 1992/93 had acquired a further academic degree, mostly a master's (20 percent) or a "first-professional degree" in subjects such as law or medicine, which are not considered in North America Undergraduate courses are offered. Completion of the professional qualification falls to a much greater extent than in Germany to the companies and institutions in which the graduates work.

While in Germany there is training for many professions outside the university system, in the USA this task is fulfilled by two-year courses at community colleges. These make up almost 40 percent of the American higher education system. Only about a third of their students ever acquire an "Associate" degree, most aspire to practical careers.

Overall, the American higher education system is more differentiated than the German one, where the majority of students are enrolled at two types of university - universities and technical colleges. The current Carnegie classification differentiates between six "basic" categories, which in turn are subdivided according to size, subject breadth and student clientele. The 282 research universities, which include Germany's best-known universities (and many that hardly anyone has heard of), have 4.9 million students, 28 percent of the total. The current rankings, especially from "US News & World Report", relate to individual types of university, eg national (research) universities, undergraduate colleges, master’s universities with regional presence, etc. The leading colleges are by standards like the Test results of their first-year students or their degrees in the standard period of study are just as good as the most prestigious research universities. The reputation of the universities and the job prospects of the graduates depend at least as much on the relative place within a category as on the affiliation to a certain type of institution.

The importance of private universities is one of the most striking differences between the two systems. In the USA, too, 74 percent of students go to state universities (even if you subtract the almost entirely public community colleges, it is still 62 percent). Because state universities charge significantly reduced fees for "state children" (and are subsidized by state taxpayers to compensate for this), they are more accessible to students from low-income families.

Of course, the public universities are so selective in the top group that students from poor families are severely underrepresented. A measure of this is the proportion of students with Pell scholarships from federal funds. Nationwide, the proportion of these students whose parents usually earn less than $ 35,000 is 29 percent. Of the 30 top universities, only the campuses of the University of California in Los Angeles and Berkeley are above average with 37 percent and 31 percent respectively, probably because of the high proportion of students from poor but educated families of Asian origin. In contrast, private elite universities such as Harvard, Stanford or MIT and their state competitors such as Michigan, Wisconsin and Georgia Tech only have shares between 11 percent and 14 percent.

The most striking (and perhaps the hardest to catch up) difference between German and American universities is probably the financial resources. In 2005, public universities with four-year courses (excluding community colleges) had $ 26,000 per student, and private universities even over $ 38,000 (each excluding health care income). In the same year, German universities had just under 11,000 euros per student at their disposal, which corresponds to around 12,000 dollars based on purchasing power parities. Much of the difference in resource endowments is due to tuition, donations, and income from (previously donated) assets: from tuition alone, US public universities averaged $ 4,600 per student in 2005, while private universities averaged $ 12,000 per student.

In terms of the governance structure, German universities now seem to be approaching the American model: in the USA, university presidents are not appointed by university members, but by an external university council, whose members at public universities are appointed by the state government. At private universities, they are usually won from the ranks of alumni and donors.

And in the USA, too, the influence of governments and donors does not end with the appointment of the university president. Congress has just passed a new higher education law that is no less than 1,150 pages. Admittedly, this regulation frenzy hardly touches the core of academic autonomy: the universities have extensive freedom in making the really important decisions about academic profile, appointments and courses of study.

This article is based on the 2007 report of the DAAD branch in New York, first published in: DAAD (Ed.): Reports of the branch offices 2007. Bonn 2008, pp. 78 to 102

From research & teaching :: September 2008

Peanuts: German universities, viewed from America


The current restructuring of German universities is seen by many as Americanization. This may flatter the American, but it is also surprising in view of the widespread anti-Americanism that, at least at first glance, seems to prevail among many German intellectuals.

German universities are Americanized at best on the surface. However, it would be too easy to state that they lack one essential element above all - money. The excellence initiative, which has been loudly propagated and which in recent years has drawn on the energy of countless German university members and consumed countless hours of work that could have been more productively invested in research and teaching, this initiative could only be viewed as a means, a few Spicing up universities at the expense of many others. The economic clear-cut to which the universities were subjected is artfully hidden under the smart costume of a reform.

Despite the tremendous vortex and the downright crazy-looking katzbalgereien that preceded the award of elite status to a handful of institutions: Only the money counts. The 1.9 billion euros distributed are undoubtedly an impressive amount for the time being. On a larger scale, however, one such amount is, to use a common term, peanuts.

Of course, some of this money has been and is being spent sensibly. The competition for research funding is a healthy affair in itself. But whether such a centralized competition can really point the way to the future is a completely different question. How sensible can it be to invest in projects that are sometimes little more than a grab bag for private professors' hobbyhorses, when at the same time the budgets for long-term priorities such as libraries and staff are drastically cut everywhere? Compared to other industrialized nations, Germany still invests a far too small percentage of its gross national product in education. According to the most recent statistics available from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (2004), the US spends around 4.1 percent of its gross national product on education at all levels. In contrast, German spending on education amounts to 3.5 percent.

Switzerland is 4.5 percent, Hungary 3.5 percent. More meaningful, however, is that 2.9 percent of the national product is spent on higher, academic education in the USA - in Germany this figure is 1.1 percent, as much as in Slovakia and Greece. No wonder that German universities are suffering.

The award of elite status brings a lucky university that is affected 20 to 80 million euros. Certainly not a "shabby" amount to make fun of at first. But when you consider that this money is distributed to numerous institutions over the long period of five years, the amount very quickly no longer seems so significant. Harvard now has $ 35 billion. In 2007 alone, the university received $ 615 million through donations from friends and alumni.

That year alone, Harvard spent $ 596 million on investments and another $ 340 million in student grants, plus $ 61 million on student jobs and $ 30 million on student loans. In the past ten years, the university has hired nearly 100 new faculty members.

But of course such comparisons are superfluous. Wherever the elite university model is discussed, the inevitable litany of Harvard, Yale and Princeton resounds. It would be more appropriate, however, to compare the standard of German public universities with the best public universities in the USA, for example with the University of California at Berkeley, UCLA, Indiana University (Bloomington) and Texas (Austin). These facilities are largely funded by taxpayers' money, and they are all centers of excellence, regardless of the angle, with multitudes of faculty, huge libraries, and leading programs for the advanced and, of course, the "excellent" students.

But public universities in the USA also benefit from a culture of philanthropy that does not exist in this form in Germany. The State University of Michigan at Ann Arbor raised no less than $ 2.5 billion from private sources from 2004 to 2007, including more than $ 300 million from over 120,000 individuals in 2007 alone. It's not that the Germans would not be generous; the public generally responds very regularly to this or that appeal for funds. The main problem is that the tax system is not designed to reward and adequately recognize philanthropy and charitable donations that would target higher education institutions.

Another relevant point should appear strange against the background of the German discourse on this topic. What makes an elite university elitist in the USA is not its financial position or the research profile of its members, but simply the quality of its students.The entire system of state and private institutions is of course based on admission procedures that make a strict selection on the basis of suitability and qualifications - but not, as it is often simplified, on the basis of solvency: many students receive full financial support from the university and many other substantial loans and grants. In public institutions, too, the tuition fees can be significantly higher than those currently charged in many places in Germany. The view that public education is "free" is an illusion. Laboratories and libraries don't just fall from the sky, and at a certain level you get what you pay for.

Perhaps all such comparisons miss the point. In Germany one should realize that the local university system is simply different and that these differences cannot be easily liquidated. What an irony if Germany, in the urge to Americanize its higher education system, gave up the very characteristics of its system that American universities tried to emulate in the 19th century. The German universities are introducing new Bachelor and Master programs, but these have little resemblance to their so-called namesakes in the USA. The freedom that allows students to determine their own course of study is lacking.

Of course there are also purely practical problems. Together with the urge to declare a few institutions the "elite", there was a call to separate teaching from research. Such a breakup would be nothing less than a disaster. There is already a deep dislike and disillusionment at German universities. All employees, including junior professors, need and deserve at least a few opportunities to be fully occupied with their research tasks and not have to worry about the issues of the lecture hall during this time. But there is hardly a place where the contact with students and younger colleagues does not significantly promote the conceptual rethinking of complex research problems. Research without contact to the challenges of the classroom is petrified. Research-based teaching, on the other hand, remains the best precaution against academic solipsism and is also the best way to ensure the survival of highly specialized subjects. At the moment, a number of academic specialties in which Germany was once a leader, at least in the humanities, are slowly but surely dying out.

A concept that is widely propagated at the moment, the name of which probably comes from the American dictionary, is "sponsoring". But you don't hear this word on any American campus, and if you do, then at most in connection with sport (this is also a scandal, but that's a different story). The term smells of advertising and commercial support from athletes - actually quite appropriate if you consider the race for third-party funding that seems to determine the everyday life of most German academics these days. Donations of this kind are extremely important, of course also in the USA, but especially in the natural sciences there. Here, too, there are important differences between our two systems. American universities have always relied on tuition and basic equipment to support their advanced students. While natural scientists work in teams, PhD students in the humanities usually do research alone. In contrast, the young generation in Germany is brought together in large collaborative research centers and graduate colleges. Ideally, these groups lead to interdisciplinarity. They are also, of course, an important source of scholarships. The relentless hunt for third-party funding, however, threatens the independence of such projects, especially when the sirens of academic fashions sound, which produce real innovation, but can also lead to a reduction in intellectual sophistication. I will never forget the address given by a dean of a prominent German university on the occasion of the opening of a Collaborative Research Center, who thought he had to explain: "The age of the individual researcher is over!" I was tempted to exclaim, "Not with me!"

In order to keep such ventures going, employees have to invest more and more time in "fundraising" and, if successful, even more time in managing the money raised. Since such tasks are then assigned to the newly appointed junior professors - still an Americanism that has lost much of its meaning through translation - these younger colleagues have less time for research. At the better American universities, the younger employees are given time off for research so that they can advance their permanent positions. Of course, their ability to teach efficiently also plays a role.

The hunt for third-party funding leads to another inflationary spiral. In contrast to the USA, enormous amounts of energy and money are invested in colloquia in Germany, the main purpose of which seems to be to raise new funds in order to be able to finance the next round of colloquia. Some of these meetings produce useful results, but most of them do not. Such gatherings are supposed to promote "networking", it is said, as if this were a worthwhile goal in and of itself.