Thursday, September 18, 2008


So, talk to me about the quality of U.S. education, particularly at community colleges.  As you may know, I have to pick up a few general education credits before I can go to acu school, because I didn't do any for my degree. Different country, different system.

Now, way back when, in the dim and distant past, I remember people saying at my university that a British bachelor's degree was equivalent to a U.S. master's degree. Because we just spend three years on one subject, and don't do any general ed. stuff so we go much more in-depth into the subject. At the time, I thought it was probably just us making ourselves feel better, and excusing ourselves for only taking 3 years to get a degree, and not 4, and that probably the extra year in the U.S. made up the difference. Now I'm left wondering if perhaps it was right after all.

I asked a work buddy about the level of academic achievement, and she basically blew off community colleges as not being the real college experience. And sure, I think they probably do a lot more hand-holding and it is probably more of a half-way house experience between high school and university. But, here's the thing that is bothering me - if community college gives you an AA degree, which exempts you from the first two years at university, then you must be going in to the third year at university on the same academic footing as your peers that are doing all four years at the same place. Otherwise, you wouldn't be able to transfer because all community college students would flounder once they got into the "big" college. So it must be comparable.

I have to say it, though. This shit is easy.  I am talking maybe O Level standard, for those that know what that is. In other words, what I did at the age of 15 and 16, and certainly not what I would think of as college level. In fact, we are drafting an essay for my English writing class, and it's been through various drafts and peer reviews as well as a language lab review. And I am dumbing it down because everyone seems disturbed that I am critiquing the thing we are writing about. Aren't we supposed to be critiquing? Isn't that what college is about? Otherwise it's a freakin' grade school project.

But, mostly I want to post here about my government class. We did the first exam on Tuesday. 40 multiple choice questions and 10 fill-in-the-blanks. Now, first of all, no college course in my day would have ever, EVER used multiple choice. They were strictly all essay-type questions. An "A" was anything above 70%, to which my US colleagues have said "but how do you differentiate between those that get 70 and those that get 95?" But the point was, nobody got 95. The questions were set up to be really fucking challenging, and if you were getting 95, they probably pulled you out of class and sent you to Oxford at the age of 14 or something. 

So, we do this test. It's on three chapters of the book. It involved regurgitating things we have either read in the book or been told about in class. No original thinking required. No opinions needed. Nothing. Just regurgitation. Not only that, we had an hour and 15 minutes to do 50 questions. I finished in 15 minutes, and spent another 15 painstakingly double-checking my answers just to waste some time. That would hardly ever have happened in my day, as we were always up against a major time crunch in exams.

I get into class this morning, and to my surprise everyone else was grousing about the test. Everyone. There were so many complaints about how hard it was, how it included all these things they didn't know about, how it was so unfair. I didn't quite believe my ears. Que?

The teacher (I hesitate to call them professors, or the classes lectures because...well, they are teachers) handed our tests back so we could discuss them. She said the average score was 61%. Sixty-one! And the scores ranged from 30 to 99. [Bonus points for guessing who got the 99...]

I don't understand. It wasn't a hard test by any stretch of the imagination. Maybe they just all didn't prepare enough (although it's an exam, it goes towards your grade, why wouldn't you prepare?) Maybe they were unprepared for how hard a college level exam was going to be (although the class is a mixture of freshmen and those about to graduate). I just. don't. get. it. 

Is it true that community colleges are just not as good academically as real universities? Is it just pointless to expect any critical thinking to be needed for the first two years? Am I on a different planet from the rest of them? And it shouldn't even be a function of me being super-smart or anything - some of this government shit should have been covered by them in high school - I should therefore be at a disadvantage, and like I said, it was just regurgitating facts which most people of average or above-average intelligence should be able to do with a little bit of studying.  

Example question: How many members* are there in the U.S. Congress? (a) 435, (b) 535, (c) 100, (d) 50. Now, unless you'd covered it a week previously, you might not remember off the top of your head that there are 435 representatives and 100 senators, making a total of 535. You might also forget that "Congress" means both the Senate and the House of Representatives. But it's well within the reach of everyone in the class. [*I may not have this word exactly right, but it was something innocuous like that.]

What am I not seeing here? Is this truly college-level stuff?


Rachel said...

Community colleges are extremely variable. Some of them offer a terrific education, and some of them offer... well, what you got.

Of course, you can say exactly the same thing for four-year schools.

My partner spent two years at an excellent community college, two years at a four year private school, and now is attending an prestigious graduate program in the sciences that attracts students from all over the world.

I never attended a community college, but spent three years at a (Seven Sisters) private school and one year at Oxford and I found the education to be comparable.

In conclusion: good schools are good and bad schools are bad. Perhaps they're less variable in the UK? What's the education like in lower-tier universities? What's your community college's reputation?

Don't despair, though. You may luck into some great teachers at your crappy community college.

Rachel said...

Boy, that was full of typos. You can tell that I am highly edumacated.

Almamay said...

I've done degrees in the US and UK. I couldn't agree with you more about the American standard of education. No university degree should involve multiple choice exams. It is lazy teaching and lazy learning. Bring on the 5 hour written exams that I sat for my UK degree!

bleu said...

The majority of community colleges in this country are just extensions of high school and teach what should have been, but wasn't taught in high schools. I say this as a former high school teacher. Everything has been dumbed down, but in elementary school the children are given 3 hours of homework a night often. They load kids with useless regurgitation assignments that burn them out by 4th grade and do not provide money for even enough books for required reading list books. By the time kids are in high school they are usually completely uninterested and also 1-4 years behind. The US education system gets worse and worse every year.

I say this as an experience of what I have seen in many schools I have taught, there are OF COURSE exceptions, and fabulous teachers but when you are given 45 students per class, and even given classes where some students must sit on the floor for lack of desks you get pretty bitter.

Sam said...

A standard 4-year school in the US is only marginally better. You have to attend a higher level of university to get a decent education. I've attended a private college back east and a CSU school in California and the level of education was not even comparable.

Sara said...

I think that when it comes to higher education in the US, you tend to get what you pay for. Community college is cheap, in part, because the "professors" are underpaid. Ergo many are also underqualified, and those that aren't underqualified are probably either juggling a hideous teaching load or working two jobs to make ends meet. Either way, they are generally stressed and overworked. Combine that with WHINY students (as you observed), and you don't get a recipe for motivation. Lack of motivation results in uninspired teaching. Those multiple choice tests? Easy and quick to grade, and they inspire a lot less "debate" (by which I mean whining and abuse) with students with an "I pay your salary so I deserve an A even though I never study and am dumb as a post" attitude. Essay exams are brutal that way.

I went to excellent private universities in the US and got a world-class education (whether it worked on me is another question, but my failings are my own, not the universities'). I have taught at both an exclusive private research university and an underfunded state school, and the quality of my teaching was the same at both. However, several years later, I still have a dedicated cadre of former students from he state school (but not the private school) who contact me regularly to seek my advise or just my friendship (I got a wedding invitation from a former CSU student today), which leads me to believe that teachers/professors actually caring about their students' education at large state schools is unusual.

Community college--it's a crapshoot, and some of them can't even afford the dice.

Elowyn said...

The others have explained it well, imho. The local community colleges here are generally glorified high schools. The 4-year state universities are marginally better (although some of the upper-division work in one's major may be very good - that's quite variable.)

The private 4-year liberal arts school that I went to was quite challenging, but that's about 4 rungs up the ladder from your average community college. It may well be that the UK system isn't so stratified - I have no idea. This is why "where" you went to college is such a big deal on resumes here - the education achieved for a B.S. isn't remotely equivalent from school to school.

Anonymous said...

Also, Florida is not exactly a state known for it's academic excellence.

Alacrity said...

Many American colleges and universities are just what other people have described, an extension of high school. I am not sure that you always "get what you pay for" but there are definitely tiers of higher education in the US, and below about the third tier, you would be surprised to learn just how many students are enrolled in remedial courses as freshmen. For example, at a certain CA state school which is considered to be pretty good, nearly half of the freshmen take remedial math or English. Not that they would publish those stats, but that is the reality.

IMHO, this is a product of our view here in the US that the only worthwhile path is one that includes a college education. We tell our young people that everyone should go to college, and devalue any life path that doesn't include that. Consequently, bypassing college is considered a source of shame. Vocational programs are fairly scarce. This makes me crazy! In my view, respect should be given to anyone who does a good job, no matter what that job may be.

Community colleges are designed to fill the void - they tend to serve students who are not ready to leave home, who aren't prepared for a rigorous academic education, or for those who can't afford to go to a four year college. They provide a cheaper path, as you can pay community college rates for two years and then transfer to a four year program. People like to pretend that those first two years are equivalent, but that is rarely the case.

I am not intending to demean anyone who has gone to community college - the value of an education is often what you put into it. I know that there are people who have gone to CC, and with hard work and careful choices have gotten much more out of it than is offered - that is to their credit.

In the UK, there are more flexible paths for students. Students are allowed to specialize much, much earlier, move into technical schools if they wish, or move out of them into a university setting if that is appropriate later on.

I believe that the early specialization, and the lack of "general education" requirements easily accounts for the 3 year degree program in the UK. In my first semester as a Biology major in the US, I was required to take a foreign language and a literature class. Over the next three years, my schedule was filled with a good number of classes which bore no relation to my major area of study. My best semester was comprised of five higher level science courses, but it was the only time that happened in four years.

I have attended top tier American universities for degrees, and I have taken classes to meet requirements elsewhere. The difference is as you described it. I have been waiting for this post of yours since you announced where you would be taking classes!!!!

Here in America, we have many, many institutions of higher learning which are little more than "bums in seats" all the way up to the doctorate level.

You just have to accept the low standards as part of the package - you are meeting basic requirements and not spending a lot of money. The fact that it feels like a complete waste of your time is beside the point!!