Dismantling the once-great American universities

Updated: 2011-07-25 13:03

By Patrick Mattimore (chinadaily.com.cn)

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According to the annual Academic Ranking of World Universities, also known as the Shanghai Rankings, over 50% of the world's top 100 universities are in the US and about 80% of the top 50 are US universities. The rankings are based upon criteria such as the number of Nobel Prizes awarded to staff and alumni and numbers of citations in prestigious journals.

In his 2009 book, "The Great American University," Columbia professor Jonathan Cole writes that what makes American universities the best in the world is the ability of those schools "to produce a very high proportion of the most fundamental knowledge and practical research discoveries in the world."

Cole explains how US universities became preeminent, what they can do to improve, and why they are at risk of losing their dominant status. With regard to the risks, Cole is most concerned that Americans will abandon their traditional commitment to education, perhaps choosing instead to spend money on defense or placing visa roadblocks in the paths of talented foreigners wishing to study in the US.

Harvard economists Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz suggest that America was able to create technological breakthroughs beyond what other nations accomplished during the twentieth century because Americans were socially committed to mass education, including college education.

According to Cole, one of the major advances in American education was the production of the 1960 Master Plan for Higher Education in California, which was the brainchild of Clark Kerr, the twelfth president of the California system. One aspect underlying Kerr's California model was a perception that America's military superiority and economic welfare depended upon a highly educated population and a smaller elite group of scientists and engineers.

Recent signs suggest that America's universities may be about to topple. Earlier this month, The New York Times reported that higher tuition costs and reduced services were eroding the University of California system. UC has seven of the top fifty universities in the Shanghai Rankings. At UC-Riverside, budget cuts have delayed the opening of a new medical school and UC's President Mark Yudof said university trends were "abysmal."

There are, as well, subtle signs that America's universities are in trouble. A recent PEW Research Center survey found that 57% of Americans think that higher education is not a good value. A Washington Post editorial urged that colleges streamline curriculums and begin offering students three-year degrees. In other words, colleges should dumb down their programs to satisfy market demands.

There is evidence that the dumbing down has already begun. One way colleges dilute education is by offering students accelerated degree programs in which students can earn Masters degrees in four years. A New York Times report this week suggests that universities are able to do that by downgrading Masters requirements, thereby creating credential inflation. Eric Hanushek, an education economist at the Hoover Institution, told The Times that, "(t)here is definitely some devaluing of the college degree going on."

So, Americans value higher education less and less and colleges are responding by offering easier-to-get degrees that will make American degrees worth even less. That appears to be a prescription that will doom American universities.

The author is a freelance journalist.