By Seonaid Knox
America’s universities are socially, culturally and academically different to what I’ve experienced at Strathclyde. You’ve seen the movies, and after studying abroad, I can confirm the college lifestyle is very real in the US. Most students live near or on campus, which is not too dissimilar to Strathclyde, except being in the city centre means there is so much to do outside of university that you don’t spend all your time engaging in student activities.
I also find that British students are far more likely to be commuters than Americans who sometimes study in completely different states to their home town. Consequently sports, clubs and Greek life are a central part of being a student. Students make a big effort to go and watch college games. Fraternities, sororities and societies host events open to all students weekly (and yes, flip cup, beer pong and keg stands are the life and soul of frat parties). In fact, writing for the student newspaper at Utica College is considered a class and the editorial positions are paid (hint hint, Strathclyde). Americans treat college as your whole life for the duration of your study, whereas us Brits seem to consider it only one aspect of it.
Scotland and America are both undoubtedly multicultural, but we are culturally different. With education being free in Scotland, as well as enjoying student loans, university is more accessible to people from all backgrounds. However in America students pay upto $40,000 per semester on tuition fees alone which directly impacts the make-up of student bodies. The system still confuses me and I didn’t attend a college full of millionaire sprigs, but it does mean students come from a fairly privileged background and have to maintain a job. UC seemed aware of this though and offers hundreds of student positions on campus which pay a decent wage. This shows that whilst the college funding in America causes societal divisions, they are thinking strategically to help students gain skills beyond their classes and to fund their college fees.
In academic terms, studying in America feels like sitting highers all over again. The standard of writing is not as high (I barely recall having to use citations) and is less exam focused. They issue weekly homework, and the few exams I did take included multiple choice and one page essays. Group work is also a big focus as well as class presentations. If I’m honest I hate group work, but a 30 minute presentation counting 20% of your final grade was great. I took 15 credits but you only need 12 to be considered a full-time student. Being a politics and journalism student also meant my classes were writing intensive yet I obtained the highest grade point average achievable. This may sound like I’m bragging, but let it be known that whilst I work hard, I never got 5 A’s in school and I don’t spend my life in the library. I work, I go out, I get drunk, I watch too much TV, but the reality is the standard expected of American students is far lower than British universities.
I’m not saying Americans aren’t as smart as British students or that their university degrees are second-class.
They just take a different approach placing more emphasis on campus activities, group work, presentations and interview skills. Their lecturers differ in opinion, but most told me they struggled to see how a few academic essays and one big exam per semester developed students into employable people. I may believe my knowledge is tested to a higher level at Strathclyde, but in no way does their methods of measuring our success provide me with people skills that are vital for employment. I’m not here to discern which country’s institutions come out on top, but I do believe we can learn from each other to develop the most effective higher education system possible to produce successful students.