"Would you drive a brand-new Mercedes off a cliff each August for the next four years?"
I was asked this question by a man sitting next to me on my Amtrak to Philadelphia last February. I was proudly headed down for Quaker Days and suddenly found myself, yet again, working to justify to a stranger why I’d be spending my family's money to pay for a premier American university education.
The question has actually not been that rare for me: I'd been confronted with it in various forms for several years during high school in London. Why not attend a United Kingdom university which would cost far less and only take three versus four years out of my earning life? After all, I’d end up with the same bachelor’s degree.
Similar questions arose during my gap year travels in Australia, New Zealand, Taiwan and Europe. "Why go to college?" my colleagues would ask. “You’re an industrious lad who seems to learn quite well on the job, who could easily work his way up in any company,” they would say. My co-workers in Berlin seemed baffled at why I, a German-speaking, European Union citizen, wouldn’t study in Europe — a seemingly equally valuable but far less financially draining option.
Yet I personally believe that the American college experience is without rival on the international stage, as it fosters the building blocks of a robust economy and develops the personal character of all individuals enrolled. American universities are fundamentally superior to their foreign counterparts because of their flexible curriculums, vast endowments and more advanced resources and facilities.
The question is actually quite well founded; higher education in the United States has become prohibitively expensive. Tuition at a private university is now roughly , according to the New York Times. The country's top 50 private universities, as ranked by U.S. News and World Report, have just . Penn has followed this trend, for the 2016-2017 academic year. These price increases are on average double the rate of inflation.
One effect of these cost-hikes by universities is a very prevalent and very real student debt crisis. According to Forbes, there are more than , with the average individual owing $37,172. Student loans have become the second highest consumer debt category, exceeded only by personal mortgages. As a result, many students are forced into grueling work-study arrangements that interfere with college life and sometimes force them to abandon their studies.
Even though the price tag has undoubtedly reached absurd levels in the United States, the American system still nurtures the greatest creativity, resilience and adaptability in its students. The narrower focus found in the U.K. and European university systems forces its students to effectively determine their career path during the college admission process. Once at university, there is no flexibility to switch out of one concentration into another, let alone take even a single class outside of one’s subject.
The American university system’s curriculum is exceptionally flexible and diverse, allowing me to focus on my intended major — philosophy, politics and economics — while also giving me the opportunity to explore other disciplines, including building upon my German skills and pursuing my love of history. Beyond indulging my personal intellectual passions, taking a wide range of classes in various faculties — and having the possibility of changing paths along the way — helps create the world’s most successful, innovative and well-rounded students. Furthermore, our educational system creates the most nimble and adaptable workers and is one of the primary reasons our economy is the most robust on the planet.
In addition, college life in the United States provides an unparalleled experience. European universities do not have the vibrant campuses found in the States; there, students either live at home or in private accommodations throughout college. I love the fact that it is the norm at American universities for underclassmen to live on campus in dynamic residential houses.
Finally, as pointed out by Walter Isaacson in "The Innovators," the Penn Reading Project book for this year, connectivity is key to learning. And the very essence of American college life is connectivity between diverse students focused on a variety of different subjects, in the classroom, the dining hall and the dorm. It may be a very expensive education, but as Tim Berners-Lee, the founder of the World Wide Web, , “If we are sitting around a table, I’ll start a sentence and you might finish it, and that’s the way we brainstorm … How can we do that when we are separated?”
In the American university system, we are connected, not separated. We are all sitting around that table.
SPENCER SWANSON is a College freshman from London, studying philosophy, politics and economics. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. “Spencer’s Space” usually appears every other Tuesday.
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