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Davis, California

Saturday, July 20, 2024

Do you get what you pay for? – Experiences in American and Danish Higher Education

The biggest difference between the American education system and the one that I come from is the price. In Denmark, I don’t pay anything to attend university. In fact, I get a government grant to cover both living expenses and other expenses for about $750 every month.

I wouldn’t dare attempt to guess how much an American college degree costs. Besides tuition, there’s accommodation, food, transportation and all the extra stuff. And it’s not as if living in California is exactly cheap.

Of course, my parents and I have already paid for my education indirectly via taxes that are some of the highest in the developed world. It’s a progressive tax system, so it’s hard to say what the percentage is. As a student worker at my old job, I paid 37 percent of my salary in taxes, but my parents pay a lot more.

As an exchange student studying at UC Davis for the year, I stand with a foot in each system, and it got me wondering: which is the better one? If you stopped a Dane in the streets of Copenhagen and told her how high the tuition fees are at UC Davis, I am certain she would find it outrageous.

However, after having spent almost seven months in California now, I can tell that American students definitely have a different experience than Danish students. For better and worse.

For starters, most Americans get a choice of where they want to go to university. There are so many universities in the United States that the possibilities seem endless — if you have the money, of course. In Denmark, I had four choices of university when I started — all public, no private universities. There’s a certain glamour of having attended Stanford or Yale. The Danish universities are good, but they are state schools. No glamour in that.

Admission systems are also different between the two countries. If you have taken the required classes in a Danish high school, you can apply for any program you are interested in. For example, the medical school in Copenhagen admits a pool of students based solely on those with the highest GPA. Extracurricular activities and personal statement essays are not a part of the college admissions process. While it takes an American student weeks to complete a single university’s application, a Danish student can finish one in as quickly as five minutes. I realize this system probably wouldn’t work in the states because of the sheer size of the country and the number of applicants.

Another difference I find funny is that Americans have school spirit. License plates declare that the driver is a UC Davis alumnus, and you can’t walk one minute on campus without seeing people in UC Davis sweatshirts. At the University of Copenhagen, I have never seen a person wearing a sweatshirt saying University of Copenhagen.

I don’t feel particularly proud to attend University of Copenhagen. Not because it’s a bad school — it has a fine ranking, but it’s just school. In one way, school spirit is quite nice, but the cynic in me says that it’s been invented to make people feel good about all the money they’re pouring into their education and for alumni to continue donating money.

Campuses in the U.S. definitely have some advantages — free access to swimming pools, fitness centers, computer rooms, other sports facilities. My university in Denmark had none of that. These types of resources are definitely available in the city of Copenhagen, but then you’d have to pay. We don’t have sports teams either. You could say that any cost that is not considered essential to education itself is scraped away in Denmark.

One aspect I really like about American education is office hours. That’s just brilliant. Before coming here I’d never been to a professor’s office. I suspect it’s a cultural thing. It might be possible to go talk to a professor at the University of Copenhagen, but I imagine it’d be pretty awkward. Here it’s encouraged, which is great.

American universities also have TAs, but I’m not sure I’m so enthusiastic about that. In one way, it’s good that there is easy access to people who can help you, but I also think that the paper you spent ages working on deserves to be reviewed by your professor, not by a graduate student who’s probably just a year older than you. I’ve never had a TA in Denmark. My papers have been corrected by my professors.

I think the way the universities are in both countries is logical. They are shaped by the way they are financed. An American university offers a lot more than a Danish university. A Danish university gives you an education and that’s it — an American university gives you an experience. Of course, the latter is nice, but in the end, a Danish university allows you something invaluable — freedom.

We are not dependent on our parents, we don’t need to work three jobs, we don’t need to try to finish earlier so it’ll be cheaper and we don’t have any debt when we come out on the other side.

Graphic by Jennifer Wu.


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