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Looking at American Education with Nigerian Eyes (IV)

The following post first appeared in my weekly column in the Weekly Trust newspaper, Abuja, Nigeria on April 29, 2006. By Farooq A. Kper...

The following post first appeared in my weekly column in the Weekly Trust newspaper, Abuja, Nigeria on April 29, 2006.

By Farooq A. Kperogi

I will conclude my series on American education this week by dwelling a little more on Ivy League universities, and then discussing my personal experiences of other aspects of American education.

Ivy League schools derive their prestige not so much from their unmatched academic excellence as from social snobbery. They are, to a good degree, beneficiaries of an inbuilt predisposition for what I call a reverence for firsts among human beings—the tendency to reserve respect for things that are steeped in history.

It is for the same reason that first-generation universities in Nigeria generally have more prestige than other universities.

Apart from being some of the first universities to be established in America, Ivy League universities have traditionally been socially exclusive institutions that admit only the children of the rich and powerful. Poor people who find their ways to these schools—and they are few and far between— are almost always sure of acceptance into “higher” social circles.

I met a friend in Austin, Texas, two months ago who shared with me his personal experience of the “magic” of being a Harvard graduate. He is originally from Puerto Rico, a U.S. dependency in the Caribbean. After his bachelor’s degree at the University of Michigan, a friend advised him to apply for an MBA at Harvard.

He told me that he was reluctant to apply because he is from a poor background and didn’t think Harvard would consider him. But he finally yielded to his friend’s prodding and applied. He was not only admitted into the school but was given a scholarship that was reserved for racial minorities.

He graduated about three years ago, and now changes high-paying jobs like people change clothes. I met him at the University of Texas where his wife is studying for her master’s degree in communication. He said he had never been to Texas, and was forced to live there only because his newly married wife had been admitted to the University of Texas.

At first, he said, he was worried about leaving his well-paying job in New York to live with his wife in Texas. But he said it occurred to him that he could send an email to the Harvard alumni listserv and ask if anybody could get him a job in Austin, Texas.

The very day he sent the email was the day he got responses from several Harvard alumni in Austin asking him to come over and take jobs that pay as high as his previous job in New York. No interviews were required. Being a Harvard graduate was enough.

He said it was ironic that even though he learned a lot less at Harvard than he did at the University of Michigan, a state university, he is regarded as very qualified only because he is associated with Harvard.

It is a well-known fact here that these prestigious private schools are actually less devoted to academic excellence than many state schools. In the Ivy League schools, it is said that graduate assistants teach about 90 percent of undergraduate classes while full-time professors spend most of their time chasing after multi-million-dollar grants to conduct research.

Yet, in annual university rankings, the Ivy League and other private universities usually lead the pack. Americans have an obsession with rankings. U.S. News and World Report conducts a yearly ranking of the over 3,000 colleges and universities in America.

However, the standards of ranking are usually not based on the academic merit of the programs of universities but on how much money they spend on their programs. In spite of this, graduating from an Ivy League school, even with a very low grade, practically guarantees one bright job prospects in America.

That is probably why the Okonjo-Iwealas feel self-important about having attended Harvard. It’s a big deal here. But I am not aware that el-Rufai attended Harvard other than a few weeks’ refresher on privatization.

Classification of degrees

Another question I was asked last week was for me to compare the degree classifications in America and Nigeria. No one can neatly compare these classifications because of the wide differences in our grading system.

However, in general, a Summa cum Laude (Latin phrase meaning, “with highest honor/praise”) will be the equivalent of our First Class Honors; Magna cum Laude (Latin phrase meaning, “with great honor/ praise”) will be equivalent to our Upper Second Class Honors; and Cum Laude (with honor/ praise) will be the equivalent of our Lower Second Class Honors. Americans do not have the equivalents of our Third Class Honors and Pass degrees.

A major difficulty in this comparison arises from the numerical differences in the value we attach to our letter grades. In the United States, the “A” grade starts from 90 to 100, whereas in our system it starts from 70 to 100. Their “B” grade starts from 80 to 89, and ours starts from 60 to 69. The American “C” starts from 70 to 79, while ours starts from 50 to 59. Their “D” starts from 60 to 69 while ours starts 40 to 49. The “F” grade here starts from 0 to 59. They have no “E.”

So Summa cum Laude is an overall “A” grade, Magna cum Laude an overall “B” grade, and Cum Laude an overall “C” grade--kind of. Americans also use a four-point scale, instead of our five-point scale.

But does this mean American standards are higher? No. Generally speaking, what will earn a student a 70 or higher grade in our system will earn the same student a 90 or higher grade here. What is more, the American system has all kinds of ways to make up for bad grades, and they have testing systems that will simply pass for "exam malpractice" in our system.

For instance, they have open-book tests, take-home tests, and "extra-credit" assignments for people who have bad grades but want to improve their scores. They also “curve” grades when there is a general poor performance in the class. This consists of arbitrarily giving additional points to students across the board.

Their system seems to be more concerned with ensuring that students have learned what they are supposed to learn than with grades, while ours seems to be more concerned with grades than with learning. In fact, some Ivy League schools were recently accused of involvement in grade inflation—the act of deliberately inflating the grades of students to make them look “smart.”

HND in America

Another reader asked if Americans have the Higher National Diploma (HND). No, they don’t. The HND is a peculiarly British educational experience, which we inherited because of our history as a former British colony.

However, since 1992, the British have abolished polytechnics which award HNDs. All their former polytechnics have been elevated to universities and now award bachelor’s degrees and postgraduate qualifications. So, in a way, HNDs are now extinct even in their native habitat—Britain. But I digress.

A friend of mine told me the story of an HND graduate from Canada (the Canadian education system is also largely British) who was given a job at the University of New Orleans as a lecturer. She taught upper-division level undergraduate courses in film studies. She even taught some graduate courses, according to my friend!

The confusion about the real worth of her qualification arose from the fact that Americans use the word “diploma” as a generic word for a certificate issued by an educational institution. This can include bachelor’s degree certificates, master’s degree certificates and even Ph.D. certificates.

When the Canadian lady presented her qualifications, the Americans were deceived into thinking that a “higher” diploma is a graduate qualification. So she was hired on the mistaken notion that she must have first acquired a “lower” diploma, which they thought was the Canadian equivalent of a bachelor’s degree, and now has a “higher” diploma, which they thought was equivalent to a master’s degree—or higher.

But when the people noticed gaps in her knowledge after many years of teaching, they decided to investigate her qualification, and realized that in the British system, an HND is defined as the equivalent of a bachelor’s degree “without honors.”

In other words, an HND was conceived in Britain and elsewhere to be less than a Third Class degree; it is equivalent to a “pass” degree. (In the British system, first, second and third class degrees are considered degrees with honors). The lady was subsequently fired from her lecturing position.

Of course, Americans do have institutions that bear the name “polytechnic.” Notable examples are the Polytechnic University of New York, the California Polytechnic State University, California State Polytechnic University (not a repetition), and the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (one name).

Almost every state in the United States also has institutes of technology or tech universities. However, all of these schools award bachelor’s degrees (including masters and Ph.D.s) mostly in engineering but also in the social sciences and humanities. They don’t award HNDs.

Does that mean that an HND graduate cannot pursue graduate studies here? No. Admission into American universities is often multi-faceted, and deficiency in one area can often be offset by strength in other areas. That’s why Americans have standardized tests.

The standardized test for entry into graduate schools in America is called the Graduate Record Exam (GRE). Secondary school graduates write either the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) or the American College Test (ACT)—the equivalents of our JAMB-administered University Matriculation Examination—before they can be admitted to study for bachelor’s degrees.

If an applicant, for instance, has an HND but has very high scores in the GRE, plus good recommendation from his teachers, universities here will be willing to admit him to study for his master’s degree. I know many Nigerians with HNDs who are pursuing masters and Ph.D. programs in the United States.

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