international analysis and commentary

US higher education: still on top of the world?


They are America’s pride across the world and, with their well-tended campuses, state-of-the-art laboratories, and immense wood-paneled libraries, they inspire a mix of awe and envy in scholars and students from Norway to Australia. It’s the Harvards, the Stanfords, the Dukes, the dozens of universities spread across the United States which churn out Nobel Prize winner after Nobel Prize winner and breakthrough discovery after breakthrough discovery. Yet, they too face a more uncertain future in today’s age of austerity, outdated immigration laws, and mounting global competition.   

In the latest, 2013-2014 Times Higher Education World University Rankings, produced in partnership with Thomson Reuters, US institutions comprise seven of the top 10, 15 of the top 20, and so on and so forth. According to a 2012 report by the National Academies – a network of private, nonprofit institutions (The National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, Institute of Medicine, and National Research Council) founded by Congressional Charter to provide independent expert advice to the US government – since the 1930s, roughly 60% of Nobel Prizes have gone to scholars working in the US. In a 2010 article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Jonathan Cole, Columbia University professor, and former Provost and Dean of Faculties, wrote: “Ambition to excel, and fierce competitiveness, have led American research universities to become the engines of our prosperity. The laser, magnetic-resonance imaging, FM radio, the algorithm for Google searches, global-positioning systems, DNA fingerprinting, fetal monitoring, bar codes, transistors, improved weather forecasting, mainframe computers, scientific cattle breeding, advanced methods of surveying public opinion, even Viagra had their origins in America’s research universities.” The article is adapted from his book The Great American University: Its Rise to Pre-eminence, Its Indispensable National Role, and Why It Must Be Protected.

In Cole’s telling, the might of the US academic system depends specifically on that rather large subset of institutions known as research universities – technically labeled, in the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education, “RU/VH: Research Universities (very high research activity)”. Their defining feature is the dedication non only to teach undergraduate students but to “produce a very high percentage of the most important fundamental and practical discoveries in the world”, in all domains, “from the sciences and engineering, to the social and behavioral sciences, and the humanistic disciplines.” They are therefore the cradle of American innovation, the true engine of the national economy and, because by nature they challenge traditional norms and beliefs, the lynchpin of social progress.  

As the report by the National Academies points out, this unparalleled network of universities was born not out of serendipity, but of the intentional design of a forward-looking leadership. In 1862, the US Congress passed the Morrill Land-Grant Act, which turned over hundreds of square kilometers of federal land to each state of the Union (depending on how many members of Congress they sent to Washington) with the express purpose of creating public research and higher learning institutions that would be appropriate to a global agricultural and industrial powerhouse such as the United States aspired to be in the late XIX century. The federal-state partnership in matters of education that was kicked-off at that time, paired with sustained industry support and the smaller network of private ivy-league universities, was then nurtured by continued investment throughout the last century, especially during and following World War II. In the last few years, however, this no longer seems to be the case.

“America’s research universities (…) are widely recognized as the best in the world,” states the study. “They are, however, confronted by many forces: the economic challenges faced by the nation and the states, the emergence of global competitors, changing demographics, and rapidly evolving technologies. Even as other nations around the world have emulated the United States in building research universities, America’s commitment to sustaining the research partnership that has helped power our economy has weakened.” In particular, public funding took a hit with the onset of the financial crisis. Today, it is struggling to recover despite a return to economic growth because a strong political focus, both nation-wide and locally, on budget cuts. Additionally the aging of the population – largely due to the baby boomers reaching 65 years – is straining public finances everywhere in the country, and tipping public policy toward the old and away from the young.

The automatic spending reductions, known as sequestration, which came into effect in March of 2013 because of Congress’ failure to reach an agreement on the debt, were the latest affront to university-based research in the US. They were responsible for cuts of between 5% and 7% to the budgets of government agencies that disburse federal research funds. In a survey released by the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities in November of 2013, seven months after sequestration hit, 81% of responding universities said they had already been affected, their number of federal grants shrinking, their research projects delayed, their purchases of new equipment put indefinitely on hold. 58% of institutions also lamented having already been forced to lay-off or otherwise reduce research personnel.

Add to this the byzantine American immigration system, which tightly caps the number of high-skilled visas, and the unwillingness of Congress to reform it, even simply by raising the quota of foreign STEM professionals (those specialized in the sciences, technology, engineering and math) allowed into the country, and the picture no longer looks so bright. “I worry desperately this means we will lose a generation of young scientists,” Francis Collins, Director of the National Institutes of Health, told USA Today when sequestration first came into being. In the meantime, countries around the world, especially in Asia, are not sitting still and instead are busy building their own innovation clusters and centers of educational and research excellence. 

While the primacy of American universities is not in doubt yet, it is clear that looking forward the US will have to strongly recommit to nurturing these institutions if it wants to retain its global edge in this sector so crucial at the economic, cultural and social levels.