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The American Approach to College Is the Winning One

Although many of us may still be encouraged at family dinner tables to pursue stable and lucrative careers in high-paying industries, such as finance, consulting, and medicine, perhaps the curriculum of a general education can help some find their true interests.”

The United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom all have different approaches to higher education. While American colleges give its students the opportunity to sample different subjects—sometimes even requiring it—before declaring their major in the second year, students in the U.K. are typically asked to pick an area of study at the time of university application. The Canadian system is more similar to the British one, though each university devises unique policies and allows varying degrees of freedom for students to explore options. Meanwhile, universities in other English-speaking nations such as Australia, Scotland, Ireland, and New Zealand more closely follow the British approach, having students apply to a specific program with a fixed curriculum rather than a general education.

I’m from Canada, but I attend Duke University in North Carolina. A question I often field is: “Why did you want to come to the United States for college?”

That question used to always make me pause for a second. Thinking about it, my Canadian tuition would have been much cheaper. The average tuition is $6,653 in Canada, but it’s $35,676 for a private American college. And my parents—though they’re the ones who wanted to push me away from home and challenge me in the first place—wouldn’t be complaining that they are now so far away from their only child.

Looking back, going to the United States for college started to become clear during my junior year in high school when I was increasingly asked by everyone—friends, family, teachers, even dentists and hairdressers—to answer the question: “What do you want to do in the future?” All my intended Canadian universities demanded that I figure out what I want to do at the time of submitting my application. While universities in Canada do allow some flexibility to take electives or complete double majors and minors, they don’t tend to offer the same kind of freedom for students to switch between different disciplines as do most colleges in the United States. For example, students at the University of Toronto are permitted to take a range of courses in Arts & Sciences until they apply to a major in second year, though they have to start off with an intended program. But many majors are very competitive or have restricted entry if you’re not initially in the program. Meanwhile, the University of British Columbia on the western coast of the country requires its students to apply to a specific program that has a fixed course schedule for the four years. 

Unlike in the U.K. and Canada, the American higher education system focuses on breadth and general education, allowing its students to explore different disciplines that will challenge their own perceptions of the world and educate them to be informed, well-rounded students. 

Although many of us may still be encouraged at family dinner tables to pursue stable and lucrative careers in high-paying industries, such as finance, consulting, and medicine, perhaps the curriculum of a general education can help some find their true interests while they’re away from the influence of home. My mother, for the longest time, wanted me to be an investment banker (and she still does). Therefore, I completed numerous business classes and business-related activities in high school under her influence. But inside, I always wondered: Is this really what I want to do? It was not until college that I pressed myself to really think about it and face the passions that I knew were always there but am afraid to pursue because they are conventionally deemed “unstable,” “too risky,” or “doing a lot but not earning much.”

Many opponents of general education argue that its place should be in high schools but not colleges where students are expected to concentrate on their more-focused pathway. However, more often than not, college is a more formative time than high school. It greets us in our “emerging adulthood,” a period marked by recovery from teenage angst, identity exploration, and self-discovery. It is in college that we begin to ask ourselves: Who am I? Who do I want to be? What is my true passion in life? And what’s my place in this society?

Julia (she asked that her last name not be included), whom I have known since high school, is a Commerce student at Queen’s University in Canada, and the program follows a strict curriculum that only offers choices of electives in third and fourth years—with the exception of a possible two electives in the second year. On a recent brunch date, we exchanged our college experiences. Then she told me, “I wish the Canadian system is more like the American one, where you’re free to explore and declare your major in the second year. I chose Queen’s because my parents wanted me to, and I chose commerce because that’s what they wanted too. But I feel like I never really thought about what I want to do.”

What’s more, the quality and scope of general education in high school are much more limited and varied due to unequal distribution of resources based on location and neighborhood income. I only discovered analytical philosophy, film studies, computer science, cultural theatre, jazz dance, personality psychology, and public policy after I got to Duke because some of these subjects were unavailable or had very limited classes in my high school. If I had stayed in Canada, I most likely would have accepted the offer at McGill’s Desautels Faculty of Management, studying something business-related. I might still be able to pursue a minor or take classes in other fields and attain proficiency in a foreign language, but I know for certain that the exploration would not have been this free and broad. 

With that said, I often hear complaints on campus from classmates who wish that they didn’t have to “waste” time on general education requirements that they wouldn’t need for their future career anyway. But general education rarely is a waste of time; on the contrary, it almost always prepares students better for the job market.  

Firstly, you never know when something you learned is going to come in handy. In 1973, Steve Jobs audited a calligraphy class that might have seemed “useless” at Reed College. Thirty-two years later—in his 2005 commencement address at Stanford—Jobs credited that class with teaching him about fonts so that he could design the “beautiful typography” in Mac. Similarly, many people I have spoken to told me that despite hating the foreign language requirement in college, they later found that it gives them a key advantage in the competitive job market as well as the personal edification of being able to communicate with people from other backgrounds. 

In the movie Good Will Hunting, the genius janitor protagonist portrayed by Matt Damon mocked a Harvard student, “You wasted $150,000 on an education you coulda got for $1.50 in late fees at the public library.” In my freshman year, we talked about why we go to college in a class, and someone brought up this quote. As we all fell into silent contemplation, Professor Ingrid Byerly, who was leading the discussion, protested: “I know that quote. But that’s not true. You know why? Because you wouldn’t get such a broad range of knowledge as you get in college. Because then you would just choose to read the books that you want to read. You would get a shallow selection.” As much as I am thankful to her for saving me from the great existential threat of “Then why did I go to college?,” I also appreciate the insight itself. Indeed, perhaps a specialized subject can be learned in a library by heading straight to the aisle with the label and reading all the books on the shelves, but a general education, of which the core values are critical thinking gained through discussions and engagement with disagreements, can likely only be achieved in discussion-based forums like the college classroom. 

Eventually at Duke, I found my main passion lying in public policy and social justice, but I also discovered the language of economic models to fill up an otherwise ambiguous, empty politician talk and devise concrete policies and strategies. So I plan to double major in Economics. Furthermore, I am also drawn to understanding the powerful role media plays in today’s political landscape and civic life, especially narrative films and documentaries. Thus, I decided to pursue a certificate in Arts of the Moving Image. These are all subjects I would have likely missed the opportunity to explore had I gone to a Canadian institution with a pre-selected program. But I know that’s not the end of my educational pursuit yet. In the remaining two years, my open, interdisciplinary general education will help me cross more boundaries and lead me to more possibilities.

Eva Hong is a student at Duke University and an intern at Merion West. 

One thought on “The American Approach to College Is the Winning One

  1. Good article on higher education and a wonderful perspective. I applaud your pursuit of economics (I’m partial to it as I have two degrees in it). And I applaud your effort to attach an economic perspective to public policy and social justice.

    My question is this: is the cost to complete higher education programs in the US sustainable compared to the rewards for completing them? I look at a college education cost as a barrier to market entry. So in this scenario, the path to sustaining the ever-increasing entry cost is somewhat offset by opening doors to more desirable careers that afford higher living (or thriving) wages. The sobering thought is that outside of attaining a college degree of some sort, the path to higher living wages are few.

    So within the path of getting higher education, is more education better? Does more debt reduce the entry barrier or create more desirable wages? Lots of variables in this equation – we can spend a lifetime analyzing it. It’s the cognitive dissonance that irks me.

    Best of luck to you!

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