“AFTER God had carried us safe to New England, and we had builded our houses, provided necessaries for our livelihood, reared convenient places for God’s worship and settled Civil Government, one of the next things we longed for and looked for was to advance learning and perpetuate it to posterity.” So ran the first university fundraising brochure, sent from Harvard College to England in 1643 to drum up cash.
America’s early and lasting enthusiasm for higher education has given it the biggest and best-funded system in the world. Hardly surprising, then, that other countries are emulating its model as they send ever more of their school-leavers to get a university education. But, as our special report argues, just as America’s system is spreading, there are growing concerns about whether it is really worth the vast sums spent on it.
The American way
The modern research university, a marriage of the Oxbridge college and the German research institute, was invented in America, and has become the gold standard for the world. Mass higher education started in America in the 19th century, spread to Europe and East Asia in the 20th and is now happening pretty much everywhere except sub-Saharan Africa. The global tertiary-enrolment ratio—the share of the student-age population at university—went up from 14% to 32% in the two decades to 2012; in that time, the number of countries with a ratio of more than half rose from five to 54. University enrolment is growing faster even than demand for that ultimate consumer good, the car. The hunger for degrees is understandable: these days they are a requirement for a decent job and an entry ticket to the middle class.