America Falling: Longtime Dominance in Education Erodes

Noah Berger for The Chronicle

Students take notes in an overcrowded calculus class at De Anza College, a two-year institution in Cupertino, Calif. As America suffers from the worst recession in a generation, budget cuts threaten higher education at every level. In Asia, by contrast, some countries are investing in colleges to spur growth.
October 05, 2009

Henry T. Yang, a prominent engineer, is one of a half-dozen American academics and entrepreneurs who sit on an international panel that advises Singapore's government on its higher-education and research efforts. At its last meeting, the group reviewed plans for a new public university, the country's fourth.

Back at home, where Mr. Yang has been chancellor of the University of California at Santa Barbara since 1994, the situation is one of contraction, not expansion. Facing the deepest state-budget cuts in decades, public-university officials in California have slashed salaries, furloughed employees, and reduced enrollments.

"Our faculty, staff, and students are deeply concerned about the survival of the University of California as a world-renowned institution," Mr. Yang told a meeting of the university's regents in July.

Although the situation has been grimmest in California, higher education across the United States is in a period of retrenchment. That decline has been greeted with dismay by many higher-education experts, who say the United States can ill afford to scale back investment in colleges when Singapore and many of its Asian neighbors are plowing money into higher education and research.

The recent economic crisis, they say, at once exacerbates and masks a continuing and more systemic problem: While the United States remains a world leader in virtually every measure of academic and research quality, its dominance is eroding.

The American share of "highly influential" papers published in peer-reviewed journals fell to 58 percent in 2003, from 63 percent in 1998. Just 4 percent of American college graduates major in engineering, compared with 13 percent of European students and 20 percent of those in Asia. The United States ranks 10th in the proportion of its adults ages 25 to 34 who hold at least an associate degree, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Despite the disturbing trends, many observers fear that there is little appetite to confront the challenges facing U.S. higher education. Even before the current financial troubles, public colleges were chronically at the back of the budgetary line, among the first to be cut in difficult times. What's more, with 50 state systems and 4,400 public and private institutions, responsibility for dealing with problems like college access or completion is diffuse, and finding a comprehensive approach to tackling such issues can be difficult, if not impossible.

Whether the current system, if unchanged, can weather recessionary storms and increased competition from overseas is an open question. Unlike their counterparts in Asia, Americans have simply not felt the same sense of urgency to reinvigorate and reinvest in higher education as a means of better positioning the country in a competitive and shifting global economy, says Charles M. Vest, president of the National Academy of Engineering and a former president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

"China, Korea, Singapore—they're going for broke because they're hungry. They know they have to do it," says Mr. Vest, who served on a national panel that produced a widely cited report, "Rising Above the Gathering Storm," which warned that America was slipping behind other countries in science and technology.

"I'm worried we won't realize what's at stake until it's too late, that we'll be too slow on the draw. Look what happened in the manufacturing sector when the Japanese got serious. We've only partially caught back up."

From Upstart to Superpower

It was not long ago that the United States was the hungry one. Already an accomplished upstart, the country cemented its position as an academic superpower in the years after World War II, its laboratories staffed by European scientists who fled the conflict and its classrooms filled with former GI's. Research spending, spurred by wartime defense needs, shot up again after the Soviet launch, in 1957, of Sputnik, the first artificial satellite. Federal support for academic research quadrupled in the seven years following Sputnik, while doctoral ranks swelled, from 8,611 degrees awarded in 1957 to 33,755 in 1973.

In many ways, the United States remains pre-eminent: Its scholarly papers are still the most cited, and it remains the top destination for foreign students. American universities dominate international college rankings.

When countries like China, Korea, and Singapore seek to build up their higher-education systems, their model is the United States. "The United States is overwhelmingly the reference point for what they want to happen," says Aims C. McGuinness Jr., a senior associate at the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems, who has advised both states and countries on educational reform.

Indeed, some observers say warnings that the United States is losing its global standing are unduly alarmist. Some measures, such as the numbers of engineers produced in India and China, are overstated, they say, because the course work there often does not meet American standards. They say that, as a whole, indicators suggest that other countries have raised their performance, not that the United States is slumping.

"It's not a zero-sum game," says Philip G. Altbach, director of the Boston College Center for International Higher Education. "It's not as if they grow, we get weaker. It's good for the world for more countries to do better."

Thus far, in fact, the United States has largely been a beneficiary of the educational advances made in Asia and elsewhere. Half of all students who earn doctorates in key science and technology fields come from overseas. (Two Chinese universities, Tsinghua and Peking, supply more students to American Ph.D. programs than any other institution, foreign or domestic.) A quarter of American college faculty members today are foreign-born.

But educators worry about what will happen if more top international students elect to remain in or return to universities in their home countries, as those institutions improve. Deepening their concern is evidence that the American talent pipeline has sprung leaks, and in many places: American high-school students post below-average scores on international science tests. Those who do well are less likely today to go to college—just half of low-income high-school seniors who were "highly qualified" in mathematics enrolled in a four-year institution in 2004, twenty percentage points lower than the Class of 1992.

Even at the graduate level, many students who start doctoral programs, particularly women and members of minority groups, fail to finish.

Part of the problem, says Patrick M. Callan, president of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, based in California, is that the U.S. system was never designed to educate most Americans. That orientation leads Americans to measure success based on the performance of its institutions. But attention to evaluations like college rankings, Mr. Callan argues, deflects the focus from the very real weaknesses in the system's foundation.

"We're still stuck on having the best higher-education system of the 20th century, when it's almost a decade into the 21st century," says Mr. Callan, whose nonprofit group publishes a biennial report card on the higher-education performance of the states and the country as a whole.

By contrast, he says, "many of the countries that have made the biggest gains are those that see institutions as a means to an end, of achieving social and economic policy."

There are some signs of a shift in American thinking. The economic-stimulus bill approved by Congress this year included money for student aid and academic research. "Economists tell us that strategic investments in education are one of the best ways to help America become more productive and competitive," stated a summary of the plan distributed by Congressional leaders.

In a speech to Congress, President Obama urged all Americans to pursue "a year or more" of higher education, or career training, and set a goal for the nation to have the world's highest proportion of college graduates by 2020. Education, said Mr. Obama, who has proposed spending $12-billion to improve programs, courses, and facilities at community colleges, is one of "three areas that are absolutely critical to our economic future."

In state capitals, governors and legislatures also are embracing the concept that higher education can be an economic driver. A panel appointed by New York's governor called for establishing a $3-billion academic-research fund to support economic development. North Carolina's public universities have adopted economic outreach as a central mission.

International Competition

Still, economists and others say the belief, embraced in Asia, that educational investment leads to economic growth is overly simplistic and fails to account for other ingredients, like fiscal and trade policies, that nourish a financial system. The Soviet Union produced a lot of scientists, notes Michael S. Teitelbaum, a program director at the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, "but it was hardly a productive economy."

What's more, the United States has never set economic-development or educational policy at the national level, seeing each as falling under state or local purview. Indeed, many Americans have a profound mistrust of federal involvement in education, at both the secondary and postsecondary levels.

But as countries in Asia and elsewhere improve their universities and modernize their economies, that approach can undercut America's standing. "These are national concerns," says Irwin Feller, an emeritus professor of economics at Pennsylvania State University's main campus, "but we're not having a national discussion about what the stakes are for the country as a whole."

As a result, Mr. Feller says, the competition is not just international, but internal, as states and institutions vie with one another for talent and resources. Universities in states that are weathering the current recession, for example, may take the opportunity to poach top researchers from institutions in hard-hit states. Such actions might benefit individual states but not the country's relative position.

The mobility of talent also can act as a disincentive for states to spend more to train the next generation of Ph.D.'s, says Ronald G. Ehrenberg, director of the Cornell Higher Education Research Institute. "Every university's economic-impact statement talks about the economic benefit of their graduates," says Mr. Ehrenberg, a professor of industrial and labor relations and economics, "but the argument doesn't really hold if the graduates don't stay in the state."

And whatever rhetorical support higher education receives risks being undermined by fiscal reality. Even before the current recession, public colleges have been among the last to get increases and one of the first to be cut, as federal and state requirements put other government programs, like Medicaid and elementary and secondary education, largely off-limits to reductions.

Over time, shaky state support for higher education could weaken American universities, says Mr. Feller. "It's like deferred maintenance—one day the roof caves in," he says.

There's evidence that that has already happened. James D. Adams, an economist at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, has documented the link between a slowdown in scientific publications by American researchers and sluggish growth in state appropriations to public research universities. No other variable accounted for the fact that growth in papers by researchers at public universities came to a standstill in the 1990s, the period Mr. Adams studied, despite the fact that scientists at these institutions pulled in more new federal research dollars than their private-college counterparts.

Even research, the one area of academe largely supported by the federal government, has not seen the huge infusions of support that East Asian countries have made. While federal spending for all academic research has grown steadily since Sputnik, most of that growth has come for biomedical research financed by the National Institutes of Health. Money for all other scientific disciplines has stayed flat since 1970. The America Competes Act, passed in 2007 in response to warnings that the United States needed to produce more scientists and engineers, authorized a doubling of spending over seven years on physical-sciences research supported by the National Science Foundation and the Energy Department, but Congress has not provided the full funds.

First Mover or Fast Follower

Most higher-education experts, however, are reluctant to suggest that throwing dollars at American colleges will solve their problems. After all, points out Jamie P. Merisotis, president of the Lumina Foundation for Education, the United States already spends a larger share of its gross domestic product on education than most of its competitors.

Nor do they advocate embracing the top-down, government-driven model practiced in most Asian countries. Even the biggest critics of the current system wince at the idea of a controlling ministry of education.

"The disadvantage central planners have is that if they get it wrong, they get it wrong," says Paula E. Stephan, a professor of economics at Georgia State University who studies the careers of scientists and engineers.

Sen. Lamar Alexander, a Tennessee Republican and sponsor of the America Competes legislation, says it is wrong to view the decentralized American approach as an impediment. Several years ago, Mr. Alexander recalls, he met with President Hu Jintao of China on the topic of economic competitiveness.

The Chinese solution, says Mr. Alexander, a former governor and president of the University of Tennessee, was to "decree" greater investment in research and academics. In the United States, by contrast, a panel appointed by the National Academies debated, deliberated, and produced the "Rising Above the Gathering Storm" report. That report led to the America Competes bill, which was argued over and amended before finally reaching the president's desk, several years later.

"It was a messy, democratic, consensus-building effort," Mr. Alexander says. "But it worked."

Still, C.D. Mote Jr., who is president of the University of Maryland at College Park and helped write the National Academies report, says the United States could learn something from the efforts of Asian countries, namely that the government can play a role in seeding innovation. "That's something we said never could work in the United States," he says.

He and others would like to see the federal government do more to encourage research directed at meeting critical social or economic needs. As an example, Mr. Mote and others pointed to a proposal by the Department of Energy to spend $280-million to create eight "energy innovation hubs," based largely at American universities, to help make breakthroughs in renewable and sustainable sources of energy.

Kris Olds, a professor of geography and one of the authors of the GlobalHigherEd blog, says that when he came to the University of Wisconsin at Madison from the National University of Singapore in 2001, he was surprised by the lack of "strategic thinking on a five-, 10-, 20-year horizon." The United States could benefit, he suggests, from consultative groups, like Singapore's international academic advisory panel, which could provide a broad, global, and long-term perspective on educational policy. The Lumina Foundation has already provided grants to three states to study how aspects of the Bologna Process, the European effort to harmonize its university systems, might apply to the American system.

Or the United States could look to its own recent history, says Mr. Ehrenberg, of Cornell. One model for federal involvement, he said, is the National Defense Education Act, which was enacted in Sputnik's wake and provided student loans and fellowships to educate thousands of scientists and engineers.

Still, many experts argue that the most meaningful action federal officials could take would be to spark a serious national discussion about the critical role of education in the country's future. To a certain extent, Mr. Obama has done that, by proposing an ambitious goal for educational attainment. Senator Alexander, meanwhile, has pressed for another national panel, this one to examine the future of the research university.

The setting of national goals could help spur the entrepreneurism and competition that has long been the hallmark of American higher education, says Mr. McGuinness, the educational consultant. "The way the United States gets its act together is not through the bureaucracy handing down a report," he says. "Once universities get going, it's like a whole herd of horses coming down a path, and unless you get moving, you'll get trampled."

But perhaps, says Kent Hughes, director of the Project on America and the Global Economy at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Americans will have to adjust their thinking. "In many cases, we can be the first mover," Mr. Hughes says. "But in many cases, we'll need to learn to be a fast follower."