I have been travelling the last week with my daughter through New York and Boston to visit colleges. We have seen 2 colleges in New York (NYU and Barnard) and 4 in Boston (Harvard, BU, Emerson and NorthEastern).
The difference between these Universities and what I know from a German or and Italian University is amazing. In our Universities a student is more or less an anonymous number. They sit with some hundred others in overcrowded lecture auditoria listening to good or bad lecturers, going home studying books and then appear for exams to pass or not to pass. And this now embedded into a half cooked reform process which seems to make suffering students and teachers.
The faculty/student ratio in all the institutes we visited is between 10 and 15 students/faculty. Every student gets his/her personal adviser and plans. At Harvard every student has three personal advisers. Classes are small, numbers as in High School, around 25. If in some rare cases, there are more, classes are splitted into teaching groups. In all the universities we visited was an attractive dense atmosphere of academic activity and life. All these universities had arranged programs to send students abroad or to other universities or in Co-Op Programs with companies or other institutions, credits automaticaly transferred to the main institution.
Another striking tendency ist the road toward de-specialization. I think Harvard has gone the longest way in this direction. They do not speak of "Majors" anymore. For the first two years you are doing a "liberal arts" program anyway, then you can come to "concentrations", what you get is a Bachelor in science or arts that prepares you to learn for a job in your life, or in a company or at a Grad School.
The price for this luxury varies between 45,000 USD and 56,000 USD, with Harvard ranging quite low (50,000 :-). This is a fee (including lodging and boarding) for one year, so the 4 years college is a 200,000 USD investment.
And here comes the outcry from many in Europe: this is only for the rich. This is clearly wrong. All the universities claim to be "need blind"; this means applications are evaluated only for qualification without any look to the economic possibilities of the parents. This might be not true 100%, but only if it is true only for 90%, the accusations that these universities are only for the rich are without basis. We can take Harvard as an exemple because they have a clear schema.
If you are admitted to Harvard because of your academic qualification then your contribution to the fees, depends on the income of your family. Until 60,000 USD/year your contribution is nil, from 60,000 to 120,000 USD it rises from 0% to 10%. next step from 10% to 20%. Only incomes above 200,000 USD start to pay a substantive contribution. Sure, the very rich pay, but who would object against this? The difference between family contribution and the cost is paid by the funding the university has from it-s income and from sponsors.
Another often heard criticism is also wrong: Most of the subsidy you get is not loan but a contribution, which has not to be repaid. Sometimes a small part is a loan, but this is also diminishing.
Well, in Germany just another private University went to nearly bancruptcy. There must be cultural issue why this highly efficient and socially just system does not work in Europe