Losing Our Educational Edge

October 1, 2009
Gordon E. Stanley

Gordon E. Stanley


By most measures, America has the best system of higher education in the world. According to the Academic Rankings of World Universities, eight of the top ten and thirty-six of the top fifty universities in the world are in the U.S. There seems to be no shortage of students for these institutions. The nation just experienced a peak in the number of high-school graduates, heightening the competition in an already competitive arena. So why worry about the supply of talent?

Much like our economic euphoria before the current recession, the positive features of our education system have blinded us to the signs of a deteriorating education infrastructure. 

On a recent visit to China with secondary-school administrators from around the U.S., I observed Chinese students hungry to learn English and eager for me to provide them with American "e-pals." Most had taken English as a mandatory language since their third year of school. China's Ministry of Education is pushing hard for exchanges of Chinese teachers and students with their American counterparts to facilitate the teaching of English and Chinese.

Meanwhile, here in Georgia, the state has dropped foreign language as a public high-school graduation requirement. One country's fervor for education does not necessarily diminish ours. But consider the following:

  • The rate of attrition in American schools between ninth and twelfth grade has tripled in the last thirty years.
  • While the total number of high-school graduates recently peaked, the rate of high-school graduation is abysmal. High-school graduation rates are just 67 percent today, versus 77 percent in 1972. Where the U.S. once led the world, it is now twenty-first out of twenty-seven among advanced economies.
  • The U.S. is near the bottom of industrialized nations for college completion rates.
  • Changing demographics, with growth in population cohorts typically underrepresented in higher education, will likely accelerate these trends.

Much like today, the U.S. was in the throes of an economic downturn when I finished at Duke in 1974. Yet my generation still had tools of hope because it was better educated than the one preceding it. Today, America is second in postsecondary attainment of fifty-five- to sixty-four-year-olds among thirty-two developed nations, but languishes as eleventh out of thirty-two among twenty-five- to thirty-four-year olds.

For the first time in a century, our younger generation is in danger of becoming less well educated than its predecessors. American higher education as a merit system is threatened by economic inequities. Nationwide, the highest-achieving students from the lowest-income households have about the same chance of attending college as the lowest-achieving wealthy students.

In 2007, as a result of growing unease from secondary-school and college administrators, the College Board convened a Commission on Access, Admission and Success in Higher Education. The secondary and higher-education professionals who attended were charged with creating "a national conversation on the antecedents and root causes of diminished access to, and graduation from, higher education in society today."

In its final report, "Coming to Our Senses: Education and the American Future," the commission called for at least a 55 percent completion rate at the community-college degree level by 2025. Getting there will not be simple. It requires voluntary universal preschool education, since poor and minority children arrive in kindergarten educationally well behind their peers; improved resources for middle- and high-school counseling; research-based dropout-prevention programs; alignment of the K-12 system with international standards and with college expectations; college-admission, cost, and aid reform; improved college retention; adult-education initiatives; and enhanced teacher recruitment, retention, and professional-development efforts..

The numerical graduation goal and the methods to get there are surely arguable. What shouldn't be is the magnitude of our educational quandary. The commission report observes that our "educational deficit is no less a threat to our nation's long-term well-being than the current fiscal crisis…. Real wealth is created when society invests in the future, including investing in the human capital of a productive people."

These concerns appear to be gaining traction. In his address to a joint session of Congress this past February, President Obama defined education as an arena "absolutely critical to our economic future." He asked Americans to commit to at least one more year of additional education at any level and called for measures so that "America will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world" by 2020.

It is unlikely that top-tier institutions like Duke will ever want for highly talented students, although the wave of demographic change will certainly influence the kinds of brilliant students who walk the campus. In that sense, these educational urgencies are, for now, more opportunity than threat. We could be satisfied. But should we? Duke is committed to "making a difference" through a strategic plan that includes internationalization, diversity, access, and deepened engagement by its students in a changing global landscape. How it executes this plan may define its role as an actor in maintaining and advancing the U.S. as the world's standard for education.