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HANNAN: The American school daze

Photo by Doug Peters

Photo by Doug Peters

Jack Hannan

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A college diploma was once considered the pinnacle of academic achievement. In recent years, its true value has been called into question. In 2014, over half of U.S. college graduates had jobs that did not require a college degree- a concerning statistic with tuition costs at an all-time high.  American students are taking out thousands in student loans and losing four years of wages only to work at jobs they could’ve obtained without attending college at all.

However, societal norm has not yet caught up with data. Most Americans who have the means to enroll in higher education do so, despite the potential risks. We live in a time where financially well off high-school graduates who do not enroll in four year university programs are met with confused looks from friends and relatives who silently wonder what went wrong.

The overwhelming majority of students that choose to attend college never really chose anything at all. It was ingrained in our minds from a young age that college was simply the next logical step after high school. This indifferent acceptance of higher education, rather than sought after achievement of it, has resulted in a population of American college students that are completely apathetic about their schooling.

“Active club member” means “on the email list.” “Not mandatory” means “not doing it.” Students invariably reply to “how’s school going?” inquiries with detailed descriptions of last weekend’s parties. I am by no means immune to this way of thinking.

Just like any other form of work, school is often difficult to get excited about. Once students figure out the minimum effort needed to get by, they are unlikely to surpass it. But not taking full advantage of the education we pay so dearly for often leads to a rude awakening upon entering the job market after graduation. Making an investment in education financially equivalent to that of a small house, and then just sliding by on minimal effort is the career-stifling epidemic plaguing the millennial generation.

Fortunately I received this concerning wake up call a little earlier – while studying abroad in Antwerp, Belgium last semester and experiencing their drastically different education structure. Attendance was optional and four of my five classes had a final exam worth 100 percent of the grade, which meant there were no assignments. Initially excited, I quickly learned that less assigned work does not necessarily mean less work.

I found that the difference between the American and European higher education structures lies with what the institution designates as “mandatory” and how they define the word itself. At Marquette, and the majority of American universities, classes will have a plethora of assignments, projects, quizzes and tests that make up the mandatory coursework.

In the University of Antwerp, and many other European universities, your only grade is the one you receive on your final (and only) exam. Thus in order to achieve the grades you want, a great deal of studying is obviously necessary, despite it not being expressly assigned.

In America, the university dictates what is mandatory. We as students use the syllabus provided us as the giant to-do list that, if completed, will prepare us for the final. In Europe, students must decide for themselves how they are going to learn the material they are presented with.

Both structures in theory supply the same amount of knowledge to the student, but the European model forces students to take full responsibility for their education. To be clear, I am not saying that I dislike the American model. I, for one, am a chronic procrastinator who will gladly accept any and all “hand-holding” from professors who want to help me succeed.

It is crucial to realize that the carefully designed courses and involved teachers within the U.S. higher education system are luxuries. If American students are able to approach their education with the same level of responsibility their European counterparts are forced to, they can take advantage of these luxuries and use them to propel themselves into successful careers.

But if these luxuries are taken for granted, they can become a crutch students use to limp through college, eventually falling flat when forced to stand on their own in the real world.

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