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Still the head of the class?

Amid higher education's global expansion, the U.S. leads, but it shouldn't rest on its laurels.

August 22, 2005|NIALL FERGUSON | NIALL FERGUSON is a professor of history at Harvard University and a senior fellow of the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. His website:

"MORE WILL mean worse."

It was the British novelist Kingsley Amis who prophesied that expanding universities would lower standards. At a time of year when many students are getting ready for college, it's appropriate to ask if he was right.

The opening up of higher education is a global phenomenon. Forty-five years ago, when Amis made his prediction, just 5% of British students entered higher education. Today it's closer to 45%. And college entry rates are even higher in the United States. In 1960, 45% of high school graduates enrolled in college. Now it's 65%.

Similar expansion has been going on all over the developed world and, at breakneck speed, in Asia. All told, the world has something in the region of 100 million students. So if Amis was right, and more does mean worse, then the deterioration of higher education should be occurring on a global scale.

Of course, it isn't. Instead, what is occurring is an intensification of the competition among the world's universities.

Universities perform a number of functions, and politicians too rarely distinguish one from another. One function is to achieve economies of scale in research. Another is to ensure that the most intellectually able young people attain their full educational potential. A third is to promote the international exchange of knowledge.

On this basis, American universities are generally doing well, but they cannot be complacent.

The British experience demonstrates that it is less, not more, that means worse. Since 1976, public funding per student in Britain has declined by more than 40%; private money has come nowhere near filling the gap. As a result, average academic pay in Britain is now less than half what it is in the United States.

It's no wonder so many British academics have, like me, opted to pursue their careers on the other side of the Atlantic.

At the top, the financial difference between American and European universities is mainly a matter of accumulated wealth. The combined investments of the colleges of Oxford and Cambridge -- the richest European universities -- are about $5 billion. Compare that with Harvard's endowment of $23 billion -- more than twice the financial assets of all British universities combined. And Harvard is not that far ahead of its American rivals. If Oxford and Cambridge were to relocate to the United States, they would rank no higher than 15th in the university wealth list.

Money matters. For one thing, it buys excellence in research. Between 1901 and 1950, the top American universities were not much richer than their European counterparts. In that period, Americans accounted for just 28 of the Nobel prizes awarded in the sciences. Since 1950, the top American universities have been building up their endowments through relentless fund-raising and canny investment.

Not surprisingly, with their bountiful research budgets and salaries, they have come to dominate scientific research. All told, 159 of all the Nobel science prizes awarded between 1951 and 1997 went to Americans. A high proportion of the rest went to non-American academics working at American universities.

BUT WHAT ABOUT educating our brightest young people? Has college expansion been -- as it was intended to be -- a step toward meritocracy?

The news here is less good. Despite the increase in college enrollments, recent research by economist Gary Solon shows that social mobility in the United States has declined markedly since the 1960s. On average, American sons are now roughly twice as likely as their Scandinavian counterparts to remain stuck in the same income band as their fathers. That's not quite as bad as socially rigid England, but it's getting there.

Statistics like these periodically prompt liberals to demand improved "access" to elite universities. Yet the reality is that declining social mobility has less to do with American universities than with its high schools. It is the patchy quality of state secondary education that is the problem, combined with the rising cost of private education.

In the United States, 83% of high school graduates from families in the top fifth in income go to college, compared with just over a third from the bottom fifth. The best explanation for that disparity is that rich families can afford the private schooling that more or less guarantees their children will go to college.

The third role that universities play is international. Here too there are grounds for concern. It used to be that most Asian students who wanted to study abroad opted for the United States. But last year -- partly because of visa restrictions, partly because of America's tarnished international image -- there was a 45% drop in the number of Chinese graduates coming to the United States. By contrast, there are about 38,000 Chinese students in British universities, and that figure appears to be rising.

American colleges may trump Europe's nationalized, cash-starved universities when it comes to high-end research. But they do not seem significantly better than their British counterparts when it comes to educating people from the lower end of the income scale. And they may be more vulnerable than they think to European competition in the global higher education market.

No, despite Amis' prophecy, more has not meant worse. But American colleges cannot sit on their laurels if they are to remain what they tend to consider themselves: the very best.

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