American Higher Education is Too Liberal — But Not in the Way You Think

Four years ago, when I was finishing high school, I had to make a choice: study for the Brazilian college admittance exams or focus on polishing my application for university in the USA. I chose the latter, and I will be upfront when I say that I do not regret my decision. Today, I face a similar choice: Should I pursue my post-undergraduate studies in Brazil or in the U.S.?

For many people, as was the case for my 17-year old self, this question may seem like a no-brainer. There is a very well-established stereotype that the top-notch American universities are simply the best out there. Nowadays, however, my take on that question is not that simple. When I look back at my academic formation in the USA and compare it to the academic formation some of my friends had at Brazil, I don't feel like I am more prepared than my peers. In fact, I find that the good students in Brazilian universities are just as prepared and have just as much intellectual development as the good students with whom I study in Georgetown.

The difference in our academic backgrounds, however, is the more liberal nature of (at least my) American education. And here is where it gets interesting. From my experience at Georgetown, and from what I know of American higher education, there are very few strict requirements imposed on students in American universities. Generally speaking, you are relatively free to take whichever classes you want, provided that those classes are under the scope of your major field of study.

To illustrate, I compared the master's degrees in economics from Duke and Fundação Getúlio Vargas (FGV), a Brazilian university. I chose to present a master's degree comparison here because the short two-year study period makes it simpler than comparing a four-year program, but the findings could probably apply to both undergraduate and Ph.D. programs as well. Duke's program works like this: You pick a field of study and then have a required number of courses that you have to take in certain areas. Most of the requirements are not course-specific, but area-specific (i.e. not "You need to take Microeconomics 101," but "You need to take one course in the microeconomics area"). With some fields of study, you can skip certain areas altogether. If you choose to get a master's degree in applied economics, for instance, you don't have to take any mathematics courses. In FGV, the approach is a bit different. There, all economics students need to take the same core structure: Microeconomics 1 through 4, Macroeconomics 1 through 3, Econometrics, Statistics 1 and 2, and Math for Economics 1 and 2. From then on, you can specialize in certain fields, and the elective structure seems to be the same as in Duke: you pick five electives, supposedly from your main area of interest.

This seems to be the same kind of difference that I noticed comparing what I studied in Georgetown as an undergraduate to what some of my friends studied in their undergraduate careers in Brazil. Now, is this more liberal education good or bad? There are factors pulling it each way, and the ideal solution, in my view, is a reasonable middle ground. What I see happening in American universities, however, is a little too much liberalization. As a result, I feel like there is a move away from the fundamentals. Too much liberty tends to encourage students to take the more "interesting" courses, and ignore those that are considered most "boring." The problem is that many of these "boring" courses are crucial foundational courses, that many times give students the analytical tools they need in order to be truly competent in their fields of study. 

In the end, I feel like American universities sometimes delegate too much responsibility to students in terms of choosing their academic careers. For me, this is troubling. Students in their twenties usually have very little experience in the field they are studying, and many times they don't really know the tools they need to succeed in their area of interest. It is the certainly the case in my situation. Fortunately, I research and discuss a lot before picking my classes, and was able to take advantage of my liberal American education to build both a strong foundation and take classes that interest me (although I do have some regrets, as does anyone). But is this always the case? From my experience, I think not. What I see happening at Georgetown is that many students just pick the classes they find most interesting, without any real consideration of how it is going to support their overall academic formation. The result is a deficit in fundamentals — and a deficit in fundamentals is one of the most dangerous to have.