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(Sorry, I just couldn't resist the temptation to use this somewhat provoking title.)

This recent question motivated me to finally ask the following, somewhat dual, question which I've been wondering about for quite some time. My experience is mainly in maths, bit I am interested in the situation in other subjects, too.

Background. I've been teaching maths classes at German universities for several years; the situation over here tends to be as follows:

  • German undergraduates have to decide about their major before entering the undergraduate program.

  • There is a single exam at the end of each course which decides about the overall grade. Students who fail can typically take a second exam some weeks later in the same semester.

  • For first year undergraduates in maths, the failure rate tends to be somewhere between 30% and 60%. It's more or less comparable for related subjects such as physics.

  • The exams of those students who fail, do in most cases clearly show that those students did not understand central concepts of the course.

My (subjective and possibly wrong) impression of the situation at many places in the US:

  • Such high failure rates of courses would be deemed inacceptable and thus, failure rates there are much lower.

  • Course grades are not determined solely by exams; instead, graded homework often counts considerable weight towards the overall grade.

Question. As the high failure rates that I am used to are, in my experience, mainly due the failing students' insufficient understanding of the contents of the course, I am wondering how the purportedly low failure rates in the US are possible. To put it more concisely:

Why are high pass rates considered acceptable for university courses in the US?

Potential reasons. I can think of with several potential reasons. I am unable, though, to check how valid they are since I lack personal experience in the US.

  1. My premise is false: Failure rates in the US are not significantly lower than in Germany, in general.

  2. First year courses in Germany should rather be compared to, say, third year courses in the US, since this is, if I understand correctly, where most maths students in the US start to work with proofs to some extent. If this alone was the major part of the explanation though, I would expect failure rates in the US to be particularly high in third year courses.

  3. A large number of US universities are just much better in teaching their students a good understanding of the course contents.

  4. The average understanding of students in the US is not higher compared to Germany, but universities simply let them pass anyway.

  5. The US approach to choose a major only when several years into the program, has some kind of early "matching effect": students gradually narrow down the subjects in which they take courses, which results in a good fit between students and subjects before the more advanced courses start. (While this "matching" is rather designed as "filtering" in Germany, via high failure rates in first year courses.)

  6. Quite high tuition fees in the US are an economical incentive for students to focus on courses which are reasonably within their capabilities, while this is not so much the case in Germany due to the mainly tax funded university system.

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7 Answers 7

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In the majority of American universities, the standards are indeed much lower than in German universities. I can mention several factors contributing to this phenomenon.

  1. Bachelors degrees are not thought of as vocational degrees or degrees in a subject. They are rather a mark to be considered 'well-educated' in some sense, and the idea of having a specialization is to force every graduate to study some subject in greater depth, not to actually train them for work in the subject. Less than half of the studies required for a mathematics degree are actually in mathematics. Most graduates, even at top schools, will go on to careers that don't have anything specific to do with their studies. If you look at top executives at US corporations, you will find that most of them have a bachelors degree in English or Political Science or Psychology or Chemistry, and an MBA. Most of the students earning a degree in Mathematics here are actually earning a double degree in Education and go on to become high school math teachers. Most of the remainder end up in jobs that don't really require a college degree, such as being a manager at a supermarket. Only a few go on to jobs that require mathematics to some extent, and even then they rarely end up using anything more complicated than calculus or introductory statistics (without needing to know proofs). Up to rounding error, none of our students go on to graduate school.

  2. US universities are much more streamed than German ones. Roughly every student at Harvard or Princeton is among the top 0.5% of US high school graduates. Stanford students are all within the top 2%, and UC--Berkeley or University of Michigan students are all within the top 7% or so. My university, the University of Idaho, is the best university in a predominantly rural state, and, up to rounding error, none of our students are from the top 10% in the country, and few are from the top 25%. (High school education is relatively poor in our state, so top 10% in the country probably means top 7% in our state.) All the better students go to more highly-ranked universities elsewhere. Given only about 50% of students go to university (both in the US and Germany), this means most of our students are from the bottom 50% of the university-attending population. If we had German standards and high school performance was a perfect indicator (which it isn't, but it isn't meaningless either), then few of our students would pass. (As it is, I think less than a quarter of our graduating students could pass a first-year class in Germany.)

  3. The general ideology in the US is that anyone can learn anything, at least up through the level of a bachelor's degree. It is generally believed that anyone who worked reasonably hard (and not unreasonably hard) should be able to earn a bachelor's degree in any subject. This is in part because most of the US (including people who have university degrees) believe that learning only involves memorizing facts.

  4. Universities are funded to a large extent based on how good a job they do of graduating students. If our university graduated fewer students, the politicians would perceive us as a failure (see (3)) and greatly cut the funding to the university. Students (who pay about half the costs of the university) would also stop coming. Given what I wrote in (2), if our university applied German standards, it would effectively cease to exist.

  5. Different departments at a university are in competition with each other to lower standards. Over the long term, departments are allocated funding based on how many students they have. Students choose their department one or two years into their studies, and can switch fairly easily. Especially at lower-ranked universities, many students choose their department based on how easy it is. You see what happens.

There may also be reasons to suspect that US universities do a better job at teaching than German ones that don't imply German instructors are doing anything wrong. Even average US universities spend more per student on instruction than German universities, with most of the money going to having smaller classes. The top universities easily spend twice as much per student, or even more, as German universities.

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    [...] There is also a second branch of tertiary education in Germany which consists of so-called "Fachhochschulen"; they are designed to offer vocational training rather than theoretical academic training. In English, they are typically referred to as "Universities of Applied Sciences" (for the lack of a more appropriate translation). They also grant bachelor's and master's degrees, but the type of qualification that such a degree certifies is typically considered by be quite different compared to the degrees granted by "Universitäten". Mar 30 at 12:02
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    Yes. And, at least a few decades ago, at my Univ in the U.S., in terms of various departments "competing" by demanding less and less: quite a few students ended up as math majors because their GPA was too low to be admitted into the engineering program... due to bad grades in math classes. :) Mar 30 at 16:12
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    Point 3 - are you suggesting the U.S. ideology is that anyone should be able to get a B.A./B.S. in physics or engineering? I was fine with the requirements for Computer Engineering but struggled and dropped out of a second year Electrical Engineering course (it was an elective for CpE but required for EE). I just find it hard to believe that most people think nearly everyone is capable of getting a B.S. in most of the hard sciences.
    – CramerTV
    Mar 30 at 18:30
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    @CramerTV It depends on who you ask, and what the subject is. I would not consider a pre-med or pre-law program anywhere near as easy as, say, a BS in computer science, and engineering programs are often more rigorous than say, a degree in literature or music, but I would readily say that all of them are far easier here in the US than the equivalents in Germany given what I’ve heard from my German friends and relatives. Whether that means everyone can get one or not is another story. That said, this perception (and to some extent reality) is part of why US companies put so much focus on... Mar 30 at 19:25
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    @JochenGlueck: We have Fachhochschule students but (partly for ideological reasons - see point 3) pretend to teach them a Universitat curriculum. Mar 30 at 21:29
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The top answer to the linked question states:

Studying is essentially free in Germany...in many fields...there is no admission cut-off...or only a very lenient one.

The situation in the US is inverted: most reputable universities have relatively strict admissions requirements (the top schools have very strict requirements), and stronger applicants tend to attend more competitive schools. The resulting student body profile in the US is therefore much more homogeneous than in Germany: picture a bell curve with a fairly narrow width, plus a few outliers. The expectation is that students in the center of this bell curve should be challenged: the average student must work hard to get a B, and will really struggle to get an A. But if the average student is at risk of failing, the course's difficulty is likely not aligned with the college's admissions requirements.

This is one reason why school reputations matter so much in the US. All degrees are not equal; rather, more competitive schools have stronger students and therefore offer more challenging courses (and vice versa). As stated in the comments, this can lead to almost-meaningless degrees, such as math degree holders who can't write a simple proof or calculate an eigenvalue. Thus, we should be careful what we mean by "pass rate"; a student in the US who "passes" college and gets a degree may still not be competitive for certain jobs or graduate schools.

A related factor is that students need to pass most of their courses on the first attempt. Retaking failed classes is expensive for the student; further, competitive schools will actual expel students who fail too many classes.

These factors can produce a vicious cycle: students expect to pass (often they expect an A), and universities expect most students to pass (many of them with As). Instructors can feel some pressure to go along with this, in that it is easy to give an easy course and pass all the students, while it is much harder and less pleasant to give a very difficult course and fail many students (even if the "very difficult" course is actually quite reasonable).

Finally, note that the above discussion applies to reputable schools with meaningful admissions requirements. But many other colleges (including, but not limited to, "community colleges") effectively have open admissions (without even any equivalent of the Abitur). There are over 5000 schools in this category, so it is difficult to make generalizations; some of these offer a good education, or at least a pathway to begin a good education. But my impression is that most such colleges have classes with very minimal requirements (e.g., show up once a week, participate in class, do a group project, and write a one-page essay) and yet still have very high failure rates.

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    Most 4 year universities, not only community colleges, in the US effectively have open admissions. They may have admissions standards on the books, but high school grade inflation have made them irrelevant, and waivers to admissions requirements are routinely granted. Also, open admissions in the US does not even require passing an exam like the Abitur. Mar 30 at 1:20
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    Yes, this is a good point....there are ~6,000 accredited universities in the US, only the top few hundred have meaningful admissions criteria (these are what I call the "competitive" ones). The others are a mixed bag....my impression is that many have ridiculously low standards (show up once a week, do one group project, and write a one-page essay for an A) and still have very high failure rates. Updated the answer.
    – cag51
    Mar 30 at 1:27
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    both for economic reasons, and because schools will actual expel students who fail to meet certain minimum standards — how is it in the interest of a tuition-funded school to expel students? It would seem that students who keep enrolling for years without progress are a commercial benefit to the school.
    – gerrit
    Mar 30 at 8:27
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    I think failure rates are higher at places with open-admission, certainly graduation rates are lower. Mar 30 at 15:15
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    @gerrit, top-tier schools such as Harvard or MIT have no shortage of people trying to get in -- every year, far more students apply than can be accepted. By expelling under-performing students, they maintain their reputation as a top-tier school and maintain that supply of students applying. Sure, someplace like the University of Podunk benefits financially from perpetual students, but those aren't the schools that expel students for under-performing.
    – Mark
    Mar 30 at 22:21
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TLDR In Germany, it is a matter of when the selection is done.

It may be worthwhile pointing out that this is the norm in maths and physics in Germany, it is not in other subjects. For example, to study psychology or biology you need a very good school grade (NC) but you don't expect to fail courses during your bachelors studies. This also goes for the grades while only an exceptional student will consistently achieve 1 in physics, a good student can expect to finish their bachelors with a 1.5 in biology. My experiences are based in Berlin but I have heard similar from other parts of Germany. This corresponds to the situation as you have described it in the USA and therefore I think that it is based on the admissions. Whereas in maths or physics the students are 'filtered out' by exams, this is done by entrance grade for other subjects, which corresponds much more to the USA system.

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    What you describe is similar to the situation in Poland, or at least what I remember form back when I was a student: it was pretty tough to get a spot at the journalism department at my university, quite tough to get into the law school, and trivial to get into the math department (number of applicants was ~11 per one spot in journalism and ~0.5 per one spot in math). Then in math, more than half of the students would fail the mandatory first-year courses (some dropping out, some reapplying), whereas from what I've heard back then, failing first year law school or journalism was pretty rare.
    – tomasz
    Mar 30 at 20:36
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There is a single exam at the end of each course which decides about the overall grade.

The exams of those students who fail, do in most cases clearly show that those students did not understand central concepts of the course.

In the American universities that I'm familiar with, grading for most courses is more than just a single exam. There is a final exam at the end of the course that makes up a considerable portion of the overall grade, but additional exams are given throughout the course. In essence, the feedback cycles are much shorter. If a student isn't understanding something critical, it will be obvious by poor results on early exams. That gives them time to either make a renewed effort to learn the material and catch up, or to drop the course entirely. Some particularly difficult "weed-out" courses can see almost half the students drop the course mid-way through the semester. Without early feedback, many of these would translate into course failures and you'd see failure rates approaching the rates you quoted for German universities.

And since you mentioned first-year courses in particular: the first year of courses in American universities is tricky to use for these sorts of statistics. Incoming students came from different high schools and have very different academic backgrounds. First-year courses - especially in math - often have to do a lot of catch-up work to get all the students to the same level. For example, in my engineering program, some students came from states where high school pre-calculus courses focused on linear algebra and trigonometry, while others came from states where pre-calculus focused on statistics. Some of my early engineering courses had to include material that much of the class already knew (thus was easy for them), but was new to the rest of the class and was necessary for understanding the rest of the course material. My first-year calculus course was essentially just a re-hash of my high school calculus course, but most of the class came from high schools where calculus wasn't even offered as an option. Grades for these sorts of first-year courses will skewed since many people already know the material.

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  • Good points. I wonder how common is dropping a course mid-semester in Germany. This is not officially counted as a failure in the US, but almost certainly would have been if the student were not allowed to drop it.
    – dbkk
    Apr 1 at 7:53
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    @dbkk: For the courses I was referring to in the question, dropping the course mid-semeseter is extremely common in Germany. A considerable number of students quickly notice that, for instance, studying mathematics at a university is very different from what they expected, and thus decide within a few weeks or months to quit the program. I don't have statistical data available, but I wouldn't be surprised if 30% or more drop a first semester course in, for instance, Linear Algebra 1. If we count them for the course failure rate, too, the overall failure rate becomes even much higher. Apr 1 at 11:21
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There are several posts proposing essentially cynical explanations, and several offering reasons why high pass rates might be acceptable. I'd like to offer a reason that suggests that a high pass rate is actively desirable.

Ask your self "what is the purpose of education"? One might imagine two answerd to this question. The first is that the an education gives you the skills required for a job, and exams certify that you have reached some objective minimum standard required for a job or academia.

But an alternative to that is that the job of an educator is to help which ever student is in front of them achieve the most of their personal potential, whatever that might be. In this conception, what is the purpose of an assessemnt? To motivate the student, and give them feedback - help them to understand what they understand, and where they should be apply their effort. For such a metric to be useful, most student should be somewhere in the middle. If either everyone fails, or everyone gets As, then the metric is low information. A fail should suggest that the student will gain no benefit from the next class. The difficulty level of that class should be calibrated so that the most people derive the most benefit from it. A small number of failing students might suggest that bringing the next class down to a level that would benefit them would deny opportunity for the majority to achieve their potential, but if the failure rate is high, then probably more people could gain more benefit by bringing the level of the next class down so that more of the fail students could benefit from it.

In this conception their is no idea of an object set of standards that must be achieved in a degree. The downside is that having a degree dows not provide much information on the abilities of the student. The upside is that more people derive more personal development from the degree.

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    I upvoted since I find this to be an interesting perspective. In order to explain low failure rates from this perspective though, I think one needs to take an important issue into account: what you suggest can most likely only work if the level is competence of all students is within quite a narrow band at each institution. More precisely, you describe the following situation: (i) passing course 1 should give the feedback that a student has reached a sufficient level of skills for course 2; (ii) most students who attend course 2 are supposed to benefit strongly from course 2; [...] Mar 31 at 22:48
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    [...] (iii) the failure rate in course 1 should be low. If there is a large spread of the abilities of the students in course 1, those three requirements are not compatible: it follows from (iii) that the requirements to pass course 1 would need to be low compared to the median skill set in course 1; by (i) this implies that the level of course 2 needs to be lower than what the median skill set of the students who passed course 1 indicates; hence, many students won't benefit from course 2 (because it will be too easy for them), which contradcits (ii). [...] Mar 31 at 22:48
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    [...] In Germany, this problem is solved by dropping requirement (iii). Do I understand you correctly that US colleges (at least the better ones) try to maintain all three requirements (i), (ii) and (iii) by ensuring that most of their students are similarly strong? [...] Mar 31 at 22:49
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    [...] It is my understanding that this would certainly seem to fit the US system (and also fit many of the other answers and comments), since this seems to require (a) an emphasis on admission rules (to implement a lower bound on the skills of students who get admitted) and (b) a competetive university system with an emphasis on rankings (to automatically get an upper bound on the skills of students who applpy for a specific college). Mar 31 at 22:49
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    At the top end... We usually assume that the top end students will stretch themselves of their own accord. In fact, the criteria for awarding top marks in any assessment usually include the specification that the student includes material in their exam/assessment that is well beyond what is taught in the class, perhaps from recommended further reading/exercises listed after each class. Students are, of course, always welcome to come discuss materials more advanced than those taught in class in the teacher's office hours. Mar 31 at 23:10
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This may not directly answer the question, but my perception has been that over the last decade US universities have begun to incorporate more holistic practices of evaluating students.

There has been a significant amount of education research indicating that exams are not the best measure of intelligence or mastery of a subject matter, and that this form of evaluation encourages memorization over mastery. With that in mind, it seems illogical and outdated to continue to rely on one or a few exams to filter through capable students. Consider that by using exams, Universities are limiting themselves to only a single type of student. I think this is one reason (in addition to those mentioned above), why it is acceptable in the US for so many students to pass.

At this time, in the United States, most students even at top universities are weeded out not by their exams or even their grades (especially for graduate study), but by what they have produced and achieved across multiple metrics.

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    That is an amazingly broad claim about exams (that regarding master of the subject matter; whether exams measure intelligence is irrelevant to the topic at hand.) I would love to see some citations, especially for fields like physics and math that are the target of the linked question re Germany. Apr 1 at 3:49
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    @KevinArlin as I mentioned, these are findings in education research. In general, exams aren't seen as the best measure of a student's ability to produce good work, at all levels, particularly in progressive circles. Just as an example, consider how in the US it is becoming the norm to waive the need for GREs for grad admissions. If you are seeking papers to read on the subject, feel free to utilize the usual resources to do so. If you think that the findings related to education as a whole don't apply to physics and math, that's a different topic.
    – psithurism
    Apr 1 at 5:15
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Many answers have interacted with the actual intention of your question, which should have been called "focusing upon the American experience, what accounts for the significant differences between pass rates for higher education in courses between the United States and Germany?" I suppose if you are to ask an intentionally provocative question in order to get more clicks, I will not feel bad for addressing that question directly.

High pass rates are considered acceptable in the United States because the purpose of teaching a student is for them to learn the material. As is such, there is no outrage when a course achieves a metric that indicates success in that capacity. At least, there is no outrage based only upon the fact that the metric has been met (whether that metric is trustworthy or not is another question). This is to say that in the United States, if 100 persons take a course and 100 of them learn the material, this is considered a success, not a failure.

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    Thanks for your post! Please note though that my question literally reads: "As the high failure rates that I am used to are, in my experience, mainly due the failing students' insufficient understanding of the contents of the course, I am wondering how the purportedly low failure rates in the US are possible.", which does not seem particularly provocative to me. It is also clear from this wording that the question is routed in my doubts whether high pass rates do indeed indicate high learning outcome; so your post does not actually address the question. Apr 1 at 9:14
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    If your are referring to the title, though - yes, I called it provocative myself, in the first line of my post. I came up with this title in response to this dual question; my intention in the choice of the title was to pointedly challenge the premise that low failure rates were necessarily desirable. Apr 1 at 9:17

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