Secrets of Success: America’s system of higher education is the best in the world. That is because there is no system

The Economist via Tom Barnett:

Wooldridge says three reasons account for this: 1) the Fed plays a limited role, unlike in a France or Germany; 2) schools compete for everything, including students and teachers; and 3) our universities are anything but ivory towers, instead being quite focused on practical stuff (Great line: “Bertrand Russell once expressed astonishment at the worldly concerns he encountered at the University of Wisconsin: ‘When any farmer’s turnip go wrong, they send a professor to investigate the failure scientifically,'” So true, as anyone who’s grown up in Wisconsin farmland can attest.)
Two interesting data points: listing of top global universities features 1 from Japan, two from UK and 17 from U.S. Wisconsin, my alma mater is 18 (ahead of Michigan!) and Harvard is number 1.
Also interesting: Of the students who travel abroad, 30 percent come to America. Britain is next at 12%, then Germany, then Australia, then France and Japan. After Australia it’s all single digits.
I guess America isn’t exactly out of the source code business, at least in the most important software package known to man.

Sep 8th 2005
America’s system of higher education is the best in the world. That is
because there is no system
IT IS all too easy to mock American academia. Every week produces a
mind-boggling example of intolerance or wackiness. Consider the twin
stories of Lawrence Summers, one of the world’s most distinguished
economists, and Ward Churchill, an obscure professor of ethnic studies,
which unfolded in parallel earlier this year. Mr Summers was almost
forced to resign as president of Harvard University because he had
dared to engage in intellectual speculation by arguing, in an informal
seminar, that discrimination might not be the only reason why women are
under-represented in the higher reaches of science and mathematics. Mr
Churchill managed to keep his job at the University of Boulder,
Colorado, despite a charge sheet including plagiarism, physical
intimidation and lying about his ethnicity.
With such colourful headlines, it is easy to lose sight of the real
story: that America has the best system of higher education in the
world. The Institute of Higher Education at Shanghai’s Jiao Tong
University ranks the world’s universities on a series of objective
criteria such as the number of Nobel prizes and articles in prestigious
journals. Seventeen of the top 20 universities in that list are
American (see table in article[1]); indeed, so are 35 of the top 50.
American universities currently employ 70% of the world’s Nobel
prize-winners. They produce about 30% of the world’s output of articles
on science and engineering, according to a survey conducted in 2001,
and 44% of the most frequently cited articles.
At the same time, a larger proportion of the population goes on to
higher education in America than almost anywhere else, with about a
third of college-aged people getting first degrees and about a third of
those continuing to get advanced degrees. Non-traditional students also
do better than in most other countries. The majority of undergraduates
are female; a third come from racial minorities; and more than 40% are
aged 25 or over. About 20% come from families with incomes at or below
the poverty line. Half attend part-time, and 80% of students work to
help support themselves.
Why is America so successful? Wealth clearly has something to do with
it. America spends more than twice as much per student as the OECD
average (about $22,000 versus $10,000 in 2001), and alumni and
philanthropists routinely shower universities with gold. History also
plays a part. Americans have always had a passion for higher education.
The Puritans established Harvard College in 1636, just two decades
after they first arrived in New England.
The main reason for America’s success, however, lies in organisation.
This is something other countries can copy. But they will not find it
easy–particularly if they are developing countries that are bent on
state-driven modernisation.
The first principle is that the federal government plays a limited
part. America does not have a central plan for its universities. It
does not treat its academics as civil servants, as do France and
Germany. Instead, universities have a wide range of patrons, from state
governments to religious bodies, from fee-paying students to generous
philanthropists. The academic landscape has been shaped by rich
benefactors such as Ezra Cornell, Cornelius Vanderbilt, Johns Hopkins
and John D. Rockefeller. And the tradition of philanthropy survives to
this day: in fiscal 2004, private donors gave $24.4 billion to
Limited government does not mean indifferent government. The federal
government has repeatedly stepped in to turbocharge higher education.
The Morrill Land Grant Act of 1862 created land-grant universities
across the country. The states poured money into community colleges.
The GI Bill of 1946 brought universities within the reach of everyone.
The federal government continues to pour billions of dollars into
science and research.
The second principle is competition. Universities compete for
everything, from students to professors to basketball stars. Professors
compete for federal research grants. Students compete for college
bursaries or research fellowships. This means that successful
institutions cannot rest on their laurels.
The third principle is that it is all right to be useful. Bertrand
Russell once expressed astonishment at the worldly concerns he
encountered at the University of Wisconsin: “When any farmer’s turnips
go wrong, they send a professor to investigate the failure
scientifically.” America has always regarded universities as more than
ivory towers. Henry Steele Commager, a 20th-century American historian,
noted of the average 19th-century American that “education was his
religion”–provided that it “be practical and pay dividends”.
This emphasis on “paying dividends” remains a prominent feature of
academic culture. America has pioneered the art of forging links
between academia and industry. American universities earn more than $1
billion a year in royalties and licence fees. More than 170
universities have “business incubators” of some sort, and dozens
operate their own venture funds.
There is no shortage of things to marvel at in America’s
higher-education system, from its robustness in the face of external
shocks to its overall excellence. No country but America explores such
a wide range of subjects (including some dubious ones such as
GBLT–gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender studies). However, what
particularly stands out is the system’s flexibility and its sheer
For a demonstration of its flexibility, consider New York University.
NYU used to be a commuter school with little money and even less
prestige. In the mid-1970s, it was so close to bankruptcy that it had
to sell off its largest campus, in the Bronx. But today it is flush
with money from fund-raising, “hot” with would-be undergraduates across
the country, and famous for recruiting academic superstars. The
Shanghai world ranking puts it at number 32.
The academic superstars certainly helped, but two other things proved
even more useful. The first was NYU’s ability to turn its location in
downtown Manhattan into an asset. Lots of universities have fine
economics departments, but having the stock exchange nearby adds
something extra. The second was the university’s ability to spot market
What made all this possible was the fact that power is concentrated in
the hands of the central administration. Most universities in other
countries distribute power among the professors; American universities
have established a counterbalance to the power of the faculty in the
person of a president, which allows some of them to act more like
entrepreneurial firms than lethargic academic bodies.
The American system’s diversity has allowed it to combine excellence
with access by providing a wide range of different types of
institutions. Only about 100 of America’s 3,200 higher-education
institutions are research universities. Many of the rest are community
colleges that produce little research and offer only two-year courses.
But able students can progress from a humble two-year college to a
prestigious research university.
To be fair, one reason why America’s best universities are so good is
that they have borrowed liberally from abroad–particularly from the
British residential universities that grew up in Oxford and Cambridge
in the Middle Ages, and from Wilhelm von Humboldt’s German research
university in the early 19th century.
But America’s academic paradise harbours plenty of serpents. The
political correctness that has plagued Mr Summers is just one example
of a deeper problem: America’s growing inclination to abandon the very
principles that have made it a world leader.
Ross Douthat has recently created a stir with his expose of Ivy League
education, “Privilege: Harvard and the Education of the Ruling Class”.
High-school students compete furiously to get into Ivy League
universities such as Harvard, but Mr Douthat, who graduated from there
only three years ago, argues that they are seldom stretched when they
arrive. A few professors try to provide overviews of big subjects, but
many stick with their pet subjects regardless of what undergraduates
need to learn. Mr Douthat wanted to pick a comprehensive list of
classes in his chosen subjects, history and literature, but ended up
with a weird mish-mash taught by “unengaged professors and overburdened
teaching assistants”. Looking back on his experience, he feels cheated.
He is not alone. In many ways, undergraduates are the stepchildren of
American higher education. Most academics pay more attention to
research than to teaching, and most universities continue to neglect
their core curriculums in the name of academic choice.
From time to time, universities try to improve the lot of the
undergraduate, as Mr Summers is currently doing at Harvard: reforming
the core curriculum, taming grade inflation and asking professors to
concentrate on teaching rather than self-promotion. But reformers are
fighting in hostile territory. The biggest rewards in academic life are
reserved for research rather than teaching, not least because research
is easier to evaluate; and most students are willing to put up with
indifferent teaching so long as they get those vital diplomas.
Complaints about the neglect of undergraduate education are as old as
the research university, but the past few years have produced a host of
new criticisms of American universities. The first is that universities
are no longer as devoted to free inquiry as they ought to be. The
persecution of Mr Summers for the sin of intellectual rumination is
symptomatic of a wider problem. At a time when America’s big political
parties are deeply divided over profound questions, from the meaning of
“life” to the ethics of pre-emptive war, university professors are
overwhelmingly on the side of one political party. Only about 10% of
tenured professors say they vote Republican. The liberal majority has
repeatedly shown that it is willing to crush dissent on anything from
speech codes to the choice of subjects worth studying.
There are signs that scientists, too, are turning against free and open
inquiry, though for commercial rather than ideological reasons.
Corporate sponsors are attaching strings to their donations in order to
prevent competitors from free-riding on their research, such as forcing
scientists to delay publication or even blank out crucial passages from
published papers. When Novartis, a Swiss pharmaceutical giant, agreed
to invest $25m in Berkeley’s College of Natural Resources, for example,
it stipulated that it should get a first look at much of the research
carried out by the plant and microbial biology department.
The second criticism is that America’s universities are pricing
themselves out of the range of ordinary Americans. Between 1971-72 and
2002-03, annual tuition costs, in constant 2002 dollars, rose from $840
to $1,735 at public two-year colleges and from $7,966 to $18,273 at
private four-year colleges. True, the federal government spends over
$100 billion a year on student aid, and elite universities make every
effort to subsidise poorer students. One study of admissions to
selective colleges shows that, in 2001-02, students with a median
family income paid only 34% of the “sticker” price.
Still, the sheer relentlessness of academic inflation is worrisome.
Elite colleges have little incentive to compete on price; indeed, they
tend to compete by adding expensive accoutrements, such as star
professors or state-of-the-art gyms, thus pushing up the cost of
education still further. And the public universities that played such a
valiant role in providing opportunities to underprivileged students are
being forced to raise their prices, thanks to the continual squeeze on
public funding. The average cost of tuition at public universities rose
by 10.5% last year, four times the rate of inflation.
The dramatic rise in the price of American higher education puts a
heavy burden on middle-class families who are too rich to qualify for
special treatment. It also sends negative signals to poorer parents who
may be unaware of all the subsidies available. Deborah Wadsworth, an
opinion pollster, points out that universities may be courting a
popular backlash. Americans increasingly regard universities as the
gatekeepers to good jobs, but they also see them as prohibitively
expensive. The result is a steady erosion of public admiration for
these formerly much-esteemed institutions.
This points to a third criticism: that universities are becoming
bastions of privilege rather than instruments of social mobility. From
the 1930s onwards, America’s great universities did much to realise the
American creed of equality of opportunity. James Bryant Conant,
Harvard’s president from 1933 to 1953, opened up scholarships to
academic merit, and the vast post-war expansion of higher education
extended Conant’s meritocratic principle to millions of students.
“Flagship” public universities such as Michigan, Texas and Berkeley,
California, provided world-class education for next to nothing.
But the march of academic meritocracy has now slowed to a crawl, and,
on some fronts, has even turned into a retreat. William Bowen of
Princeton University and two colleagues, in a study of admissions to
elite universities, found that in the 11 universities for which they
had the best data, students from the top income quartile increased
their share of places from 39% in 1976 to 50% in 1995. Students from
the bottom income quartile also increased their share very slightly:
the squeeze came in the middle.
Mr Summers points out that Harvard now offers free tuition to students
whose families earn less than $40,000 a year, and greatly reduced fees
to students from families earning $40,000-60,000. Other elite
universities have followed suit. Yet at the same time those
universities give priority to athletes, people applying early (who
often come from privileged backgrounds) and the children of alumni
(“legacies”). Duke University encourages the offspring of wealthy
parents to apply early and considers their applications
The real threat to meritocracy, however, comes not from within the
universities but from society at large. One consequence of the squeeze
on funding for public universities, created by Americans’ reluctance to
pay taxes, has been an academic brain drain to the more socially
exclusive private universities. In 1987, seven of the 26 top-rated
universities in the US NEWS & WORLD REPORT rankings were public
institutions; by 2002, the number had fallen to just four.
The biggest risk to American higher education is the erosion of the
competitive principle. The man often cited as the architect of American
academia’s current success is Vannevar Bush, who was director of the
office of scientific research and development during the second world
war. After the war he insisted that research grants be allocated to
universities on the basis of open competition and peer review. But in
the 1980s universities began undermining this principle by lobbying
their local congressmen for direct appropriations. In 2003, the amount
of money from the federal research budget awarded on a non-competitive
basis topped $2 billion, up from $1 billion in 2000.
American academia’s merits still outweigh its faults. Many American
undergraduates are savvy enough to get a first-class education. Many
academics resist the temptation to censor ideological minorities. The
vast bulk of research grants are allocated on the basis of merit. Yet
American universities are acquiring a growing catalogue of bad habits
that could one day leave them vulnerable to competitors from other
parts of the world–though probably not from Europe, which has
overwhelming academic problems of its own.