Global Competition

Global Competition: U.S. Higher Education under Assault
October 1, 2010

America’s leadership in the world is being challenged on many levels, including its dominance in higher education. That’s the premise of a new book—American Universities in a Global Market (University of Chicago Press)—edited by Charles Clotfelter ’69, Z. Smith Reynolds professor of public policy and professor of economics and law. The book includes contributions from sixteen scholars; they take on themes ranging from the Americanization of European universities to the enrollment patterns of foreign graduate students studying in the U.S.

Since World War II, Clotfelter writes in the book’s introduction, American universities have occupied an unchallenged position of preeminence in the world. “Owing to high rates of educational attainment, vigorous governmental support of scientific research, and a massive influx of scholars from Europe seeking refuge, America during the twentieth century supplanted Europe as the home of most of the world’s leading universities. Today, American institutions dominate the highest rungs of the world rankings of great universities. When universities around the world seek to improve themselves, they commonly look to universities in the United States as their model.”

But this position of preeminence could be in jeopardy, he says. The flow of foreign graduate students and scholars into American universities, while still robust, has shown signs of slowing, in the wake of heightened security concerns and competition from foreign universities. It’s not just European universities that are working to raise their profiles; the same assertiveness is evident on the part of universities in Australia and China and other parts of Asia.

Meanwhile, America’s own production of university graduates has slowed relative to that of other developed nations. (This summer, The New York Times reported that the U.S., which used to lead the world in the number of twenty-five- to thirty-four year-olds with college degrees, now ranks twelfth among thirty-six developed nations.) Clotfelter also points to the diminishing numbers of American college students who undertake advanced study in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics—a trend mirrored by “a marked deceleration in science and engineering research publications” written by U.S. academics.

He adds, “In light of the daunting economic conditions of the current moment, any jaunty confidence remaining from the heady decades of the recent past must surely be tempered with caution.” One other cause for concern, according to Clotfelter, is that reform in American higher education has been relatively modest. “While many processes in other industries have been ‘re engineered,’ universities continue to do many things in the same way they were done in the nineteenth century: Lectures employ blackboards, journals are printed and bound, and bachelor’s programs take four years.” To the extent that historical dominance breeds self-satisfaction, he adds, “American universities could be vulnerable.”