In Praise of American Higher Education
September 14, 2020
These are grim times, filled with bad news. Nationally, the death toll from COVID-19 has passed 190,000. Political polarization has reached record levels, with some scholars openly fearing a fascist future for America. In my hometown of Portland, Ore., we have been buffeted by business closures, violent clashes between protesters and police, and out-of-control wildfires that have killed an unknown number of our fellow citizens, destroyed over a thousand homes and filled our streets with smoke. And in the higher education community, we are struggling. Our campuses are now COVID-19 hot spots, hundreds of institutions have implemented layoffs and furloughs impacting a reported 50,000 persons, and many commentators predict a complete financial meltdown for the sector. As I started to write this essay, a friend asked, “Is there any good news to report?”
In America today, we love to bash higher education. The negative drumbeat is incessant. Tuition, we hear, is too high. Students have to take too many loans. College does not prepare students for work. Inequality and racism are widespread. Just look at recent book titles: The Breakdown of Higher Education; Crisis in Higher Education; Intro to Failure; The Quiet Crisis, How Higher Education is Failing America; Higher Education Under Fire; The Dream Is Over; Cracks in the Ivory Tower, The Moral Mess of Higher Education; and The Coddling of the American Mind. Jeesh.
So, for good news today, I want to remind everyone that despite all the criticism, the United States possesses a remarkable higher education system. Yes, we have our problems, which we need to address. The government and our colleges and universities need to partner to expand access to college, make it more affordable and decrease loan burdens; we need to ensure that our students graduate with valuable job skills; we need to tackle inequality and systemic racism in admission, hiring and the curriculum. But let us not lose sight of the remarkable things we have achieved and the very real strengths our system possesses — the very strengths that will allow us to tackle and solve the problems we have identified. Consider the following:
The United States has, by far, the largest number of great universities in the world. In the latest Times World University Rankings, the United States is dominant, possessing 14 of the top 20 universities in the world. These universities — places like Yale, UC Berkeley and Johns Hopkins — provide remarkable undergraduate and graduate educations combined with world-leading research outcomes. That reputation for excellence has made the United States the international gold standard for higher education.
We provide remarkable value to our students. As a recent Brookings Institution report noted, “Higher education provides extensive benefits to students, including higher wages, better health, and a lower likelihood of requiring disability payments. A population that is more highly educated also confers wide-ranging benefits to the economy, such as lower rates of unemployment and higher wages even for workers without college degrees. A postsecondary degree can also serve as a buffer against unemployment during economic downturns. Those with postsecondary degrees saw more steady employment through the Great Recession, and the vast majority of net jobs created during the economic recovery went to college-educated workers.”
Our higher education capacity is massive. At last count, almost 20 million students are enrolled in college. This is one reason we are fourth (behind Canada, Japan and South Korea) out of all OECD nations in higher education degree attainment, far ahead of nations like Germany and France. If we believe that mass education is critical to the future of our economy and democracy, this high number — and the fact that most of our institutions could easily grow — should give us great hope.
The United States dominates global research (though China is gaining). As The Economist reported in 2018, “Since the first Nobel prizes were bestowed in 1901, American scientists have won a whopping 269 medals in the fields of chemistry, physics and physiology or medicine. This dwarfs the tallies of America’s nearest competitors, Britain (89), Germany (69) and France (31).” In a recent global ranking of university innovation — “a list that identifies and ranks the educational institutions doing the most to advance science, invent new technologies and power new markets and industries” — U.S. institutions grabbed eight out of the top 10 spots.
We possess an amazing network of community colleges offering very low-cost, high-quality foundational and continuing education to virtually every American. No matter where you live in the United States, a low-cost community college and a world of learning is just a few miles away. This network provides a great foundation for our effort to expand economic opportunity and reach underserved populations. As Secretary of Education Arne Duncan once remarked, “About half of all first-generation college students and minority students attend community colleges. It is a remarkable record. No other system of higher education in the world does so much to provide access and second-chance opportunities as our community colleges.”
We are nimble. Though higher education is often bashed for refusing to change, our ability to do so is remarkable. When COVID-19 broke out in spring 2020, almost every U.S. college and university pivoted successfully to online education in a matter of weeks. Faculty, staff and administrators, often criticized for failing to work together, collectively made this happen overnight. Now, no matter what the future holds, our colleges and universities have the ability to deliver education effectively through both traditional in-person and new online models.
We have a great tradition, starting with the GI Bill, of federal government support for college education. No one in Congress is calling for an end to Pell Grants, one of the few government programs to enjoy overwhelming bipartisan government support in this highly fractured political era. Instead, the only question is the degree to which those grants need to increase and whether that increase should be linked to cost containment by institutions or not. This foundation of political support is vital as we look to ways to expand college access and affordability.
Finally, we have amazing historically Black colleges and universities, with excellent academic programs, outstanding faculty and proud histories. As the nation begins to confront its history of racism and discrimination, these institutions provide a remarkable asset to help the nation come to terms with its past, provide transformational education in the present and move toward a better future.
So, as we go through tough times, and we continue to subject our institutions to necessary and valuable self-criticism, it is important to keep our failures and limitations in perspective. Yes, American higher education could be better. But it is remarkable, valuable and praiseworthy all the same.