Firsthand: Groningen University

03-12-23 groningen-01 A lot of people (including myself until recently) would have trouble naming cities in the Netherlands other than Amsterdam (and possibly The Hague). Groningen is a city that isn’t well known, but has a tremendous amount to offer students. It is a true student town, with students making up 25% of the 250,000 population. Even outside of students, it is a young city as 50% of the population is under the age of 35. Groningen is as compact as it is easy to navigate. I liked it immediately when I got off the train. The Groningen Museum is right across the canal from the train station and had signs out for the David Bowie exhibit. I didn’t get a chance to check it out, but it sounds pretty interesting. The city center is also about a 5 minute walk from the station and filled with shops, cafes, and a large outdoor market where I had my first stroopwafel.

The main buildings for the university are also in the city center, about a 15 minute walk from the train station. This area houses all programs other than the Economics and Business programs and Science programs which are on a campus about 10 minutes away by bike.

Groningen University is one of the oldest schools in the Netherlands, founded in 1614, and is consistently ranked in the top 100 global universities. They offer 23 English conducted bachelor’s programs as well as a liberal arts program at their University College. One might then wonder if admissions are competitive. The answer is “No”. If a program does not have an enrollment cap, you are admitted if you have the equivalent of a Dutch VWO level high school diploma. For American students, this means either an IB diploma, 4 AP scores of 3+ or 1 year of college-students from other countries can find their entry requirements here. That’s all! No assessment of extracurricular activities, test scores, etc. If you are qualified, you get in. The more popular programs have enrollment caps to control class size. For these programs, qualified applicants are further assessed based on their motivation letter. The admission process for the liberal arts programs offered by the University College is more involved. In addition to the above, there is a math requirement and motivational video or essay.

Though it may not be hard to get into the school, students must work to stay in school. Year one is an evaluation of sorts. Students have to pass 75% of their first year courses in order to be able to continue their studies. That said, the school is invested in helping students succeed. Semesters are broken into 9 weeks blocks. Study advisors keep an eye on grades at the end of each 9 week period to provide resources to students who might be at risk.

Classes have a lecture component (usually around 200 students), but the same class also has seminar groups with the professor. These are usually limited to 10-15 students and attendance is mandatory. Students are encouraged-and expected-to disagree with the professor during these group discussions, which can be hard for some international students to adjust to. The other expectation that some American students specifically have trouble adjusting to relates to self- study. At the beginning of the 9 week block, students receive a schedule that communicates what will be taught each week along with the expected reading throughout the week to prepare for the lecture and seminar group. This is not checked on through assignments, but will determine success for the test at the end of the semester, which is usually all the grade for the class is based on.

Speaking of grades, don’t expect A’s! The Dutch use a 10 point grading system. 5 and lower is failing, 6 is ok, 7 is good, 8 is really good, 9 is excellent, and 10 is almost never given as it means you know as much as or more than the professor. More than grades, the emphasis is on making sure that students understand the information. Some professors have started utilizing a system to evaluate this during their lectures. They have an app that allows professors to ask questions about the lecture he/she is giving and students respond to the questions on their phones. The professor then gets a percentage of the students who got the answer right. If not enough are grasping the topic, he/she knows to elaborate on the topic.

The above information pertains to all departments at Groningen University except for the Groningen University College. This is really an incredible program that I want to focus on. The University College is the liberal arts program at the university. They are somewhat self-contained; their classes are held within one building and there is a residential component. Their offering combines the benefits of a small boutique college with the resources of a top university. The program started two years ago, during which the number of students admitted each year was limited to 25. This year (2016) they are increasing it to 100 students per year, so they still have spots for students.

During the first year of the program, students get a taste of each of the majors through the core program. Global challenges (and solutions) are a theme throughout the first year as are research methods and skills. The second year, students choose and focus on a major, integrative project, and research and methodology. The final year can include study abroad, more majors, and a capstone project (which is the thesis). I met with an American student who is in his second year of the program who could not be happier with the experience.

Most university students in the Netherlands continue on for their master’s degree after obtaining their bachelor’s. Until 9 years ago, university bachelor’s and master’s programs were combined. Thus, the concept of a bachelor’s degree is unfamiliar to many employers in the Netherlands who expect a master’s. Graduates from Groningen’s bachelor’s degree programs (including the university college) have direct admission into the related master’s degree programs at the University!