There are more than 5,000 universities in the U.S., including the best in the world. Finding a great university is one of the things to do in Manhattan. Thomas Rantasa has been studying computer science, minoring in economics and industrial engineering for five semesters at one of the top universities, Columbia University. Cost: $54,000 per year. Study with Stiglitz and a view of Central Park.
Interviewer: You never wanted to study in Austria?
Thomas Rantasa: Ideally not.
At Columbia, you just have to decide at the beginning whether you want to go to the humanities or to the engineering school. Then you have between one and five semesters – depending on the university – to decide what you want to specialize in. You can put together your studies, so to speak.
You have just finished the fifth semester. How many semesters are still to come?
Three, then I have a bachelor’s degree.
Eight semesters until the Bachelor’s degree?
Yes. Much emphasis is placed on a broad general education. Although I study computer science, I have a lot of mathematics and a lot of programming, but I still have to take art history, writing seminars, and music. Next semester I have a Buddhism lecture. It is run by Uma Thurman’s father.
How do you imagine studying in the USA?
Many settle in the USA to study. That is, everyone is torn out of the social context. This makes them very open. At Columbia, 95 percent of students live on campus. A small town. We have our own zip code, our own post office, and a police station.
What’s the atmosphere like?
New York is an important part of Columbia. We are right in Manhattan. It’s hectic in a positive sense. The athletes get up at five o’clock to train, the computer science people come out of the library at five o’clock in the morning.
What is the quality of life?
I sleep four to five hours a night. You have exams and homework throughout the semester. Accordingly, you are always on your feet. If I’m already here and my mother pays so much money, I want to take advantage of that.
What are your tuition fees?
The top universities are financed to only two percent by tuition fees. The rest are research funds, donations, etc. When I apply to a top university, they don’t know at the beginning how much money I have. Only when you have been accepted, you send the finances over. Then the tuition fee is calculated individually. Including food and housing, my tuition fee amounts to $54,000 per year.
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Isn’t that a hefty sum?
Yes. But many of my friends pay $10,000 and live just like me, attend the same classes and go to the same cafeteria. If the parents earn well, you pay more. But the system is certainly not perfect.
What is your opinion on the tuition fee discussion in Austria?
If I really want to study, then I make an effort to earn the money. But if someone is prevented from studying because they actually can’t afford it, that’s sad.
What is the relationship with the professors?
All are academically top. But just because someone has the Nobel Prize doesn’t mean they can teach top.
Are you in awe?
I was in a lecture by Joseph Stiglitz. You think twice about asking a question. But they are all super nice people.
Is attendance compulsory in all courses?
No. At discussion lectures – where the professor sits at the table and the students in a circle – attendance is usually compulsory. In 75 percent of the lectures, there are a maximum of 22 students. In the humanities, you are often required to read 70, 80 pages a night. If there’s a discussion with 15 people and you haven’t read anything, it looks pretty stupid.
Are there any parties?
I visited friends of mine at Arizona State University. The scenes from American Pie are a joke against it. At Columbia, it’s not nearly as extreme, also because we have New York.
Will all doors be open to you with a degree from Columbia?
In the end, you have to fight as well.