US higher education system: Explained

American universities occupy 19 of the top 30 slots in the 2023 Times Higher Education Supplements’ ranking of the world’s universities.

US higher education, high school, studies, cost, Harvard Business School,
A majority of Americans now consider a college degree a questionable investment.

Bloomberg: By Adrian Wooldridge

The United States has been a leader in higher education since the Massachusetts legislature founded Harvard College in 1636, six years after the Puritans landed and established the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The Americans built the world’s first mass university system with the creation of land-grant universities via the Morrill Acts of 1862 and 1890. They mixed the world’s two most successful models of higher education — the German research university and the Oxbridge residential college — into a uniquely powerful synthesis in the 1890s. The 20th century has seen the US invent the high-tech research park, the multiversity, the commuter college and, cynics might add, the university as hedge fund.

In many respects, the US remains the global pacemaker today. American universities occupy 19 of the top 30 slots in the 2023 Times Higher Education Supplements’ ranking of the world’s universities. The US has by far the largest concentration of Nobel Prize winners. Nine of the top ten richest universities are in the US (the odd man out is the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Saudi Arabia). Harvard University’s top ranking on that list, with an endowment of more than $50 billion, didn’t prevent Kenneth Griffin, the founder and CEO of Citadel (and a voluble critic of academic leftism), from writing a check for $300 million.

Yet behind this glittering façade of Nobel Prizes and gargantuan gifts, the US university system is beginning to molder. The problem is not just a few glitches here and there. That is to be expected in a giant system. It is that vital elements in a healthy academic system are failing at the same time.

Prices continue to rise: A year at Cornell now costs nearly $90,000. Administrative bloat is rampant: Yale University now has the equivalent of one administrator for every undergraduate student. Federal student debt has reached $1.6 trillion, 60% more than credit card debt.

Enrollment has fallen by 1.4 million since the pandemic began, with no end in sight with the waning of the pandemic. A majority of Americans now consider a college degree a questionable investment.

Life within many universities no longer resembles the bucolic ideal that those of us of a certain age remember. A tiny tenured elite sits on top of a mass of toiling temporary workers who move from one short-term assignment and frequently end up unemployed — the world’s most highly educated lumpenproletariat.

The biggest US strike last year was conducted by 48,000 workers at the University of California, the state’s third largest employer. The representation of these workers by the United Auto Workers union is symbolic as well as noteworthy: For America’s university sector increasingly looks like the country’s car industry in the 1970s, just before it was taken apart by the Japanese — hampered by a giant bureaucracy, contemptuous of many of its workers, and congenitally inward-looking.

How can we prevent one of America’s most successful industries going the way of the once-dominant General Motors? Answers to this question tend to fall into two categories — the complacent and the disruptive. The complacent argue that we need more generous public subsidies.

President Joe Biden wants the federal government to forgive billions of dollars in student debt in a one-off bonanza while also tweaking the rules for student financing to make the system more generous. But quite apart from the likelihood that this proposal will not survive a review by America’s conservative Supreme Court, it does nothing to address — and will probably exacerbate — the underlying problem of cost inflation.

The disruptive argue that America needs to reinvent higher education in the light of new technology. The late Clayton Christensen, of Harvard Business School and The Innovator’s Dilemma,” co-wrote another intriguing book, The Innovator’s University, about how the university was the latest example of an industry that was about to be revolutionized by a disruptive technology that could shrink price and revolutionize access. Yet the revolution has still not come. Education is a quintessentially human process that ideally centers on the same thing as it did in Socrates’ day — the spark of inspiration leaping from one mind to another. Technology can help but it can never replace the human touch.

The best way to reform US higher education is to take the four principles that have shaped the university sector from the very beginning and bring them back into a healthy balance. The US has taken the first two principles — democratization and marketization — too far. They need to be reined in. It has faltered in its support for the third and fourth principles — meritocracy and freedom of speech. It needs to redouble its support for the third and demonstrate that the fourth is non-negotiable.

The democratic principle has triumphed: More Americans than ever before have been to university. But this triumph has exacted a heavy cost not only in college debt but in the neglect of non-college paths to success. In Germany, practical-minded children have a clear road to success through technical colleges and apprenticeships. In America, they are increasingly left with nowhere to go. Thirty-nine million Americans drop out of college without finishing their degree, leaving them in the worst of both worlds — student debt without a sheepskin — and suggesting that college-for-all is an inherently foolish idea.

Defenders of the current university-focused system point out that US universities contain all manner of vocational schools under their capacious roof. But is it sensible to put vocational education in a realm where many practical-minded students fear to tread and where professors are chosen for their publication record rather than their teaching ability? Democratization may have been an excuse for bundling up lots of different educational functions that might be better off delivered through diverse and dedicated institutions, as in Germany. It’s time at least to experiment with a new model.

The traditional counterpoise to democratization was marketization, which was supposed to help pay the bills while keeping the Ivy Towers rooted in the ground. Marketization has certainly paid big dividends: The US model of linking the universities to local tech industries, pioneered by Stanford, is envied and imitated across the world. But it has also generated waste — universities compete to build expensive sports complexes or hire star professors (who are always on sabbatical) in order to attract customers and boost their rankings.

US universities have also imported some of the worst qualities of mature companies: exorbitant CEO pay, a bloated middle-management, a habit of treating non-tenured faculty as precarious workers rather than candidates for membership of a learned society, and, to the chagrin of conservatives who naively imagined that marketization might tame the tenured radicals who dominate the faculties, all the expensive paraphernalia of the woke corporation. The number of administrators has grown with a speed that would astonish even GM’s middle-managers of the 1970s: Stanford’s army of managerial and professional staff leapt from 8,984 in 2019 to 11,336 in 2021.

Universities need to borrow some of the tougher techniques from the private sector as well as the softer ones like increasing president’s pay: How about “downsizing” some of those middle managers, “re-engineering” some of those administrative processes, and focusing on “core competences” like teaching? They also need to prevent the new administrative staff from taking over functions that should be reserved for academics, most importantly selecting students and staff and defining the ethos of the institution.

The combination of democracy and marketization is weakening a third defining principle of a successful university — meritocracy. Elite universities continue to favor the offspring of donors (actual or prospective) by providing preferential admissions for the children of alumni or practitioners of plutocratic sports such as fencing or lacrosse. At the same time, they favor certain ethnic groups through policies of “diversity, equity and inclusion.” Worryingly, a growing number of universities are making SAT tests, which were introduced in the 1930s in the name of meritocracy, optional while keeping legacy preferences intact.

SAT tests are a valuable way of discovering hidden talent in poorer children from non-academic backgrounds. True, elite parents can improve their children’s SAT scores through coaching. But you can address this problem by providing coaching for everyone or by using SAT tests to compare people from similar economic backgrounds. Giving more emphasis to more subjective measures such as academic grades, extracurricular activities and teachers’ reports invariably tilts the selection process in favor of richer students and favored ethnic or social groups.

Jacques Steinberg’s classic study, The Gatekeepers: Inside the Admissions Process of a Premier College, paints a stomach-turning picture of admissions officers making life-changing decisions on the basis of raw prejudice and social snobbery. Without the back-up of universally administered objective tests. it will be harder to hold admissions officers to account for decisions which affect the spending of public money as well as the shaping of the future elite’s character.

The most dangerous threat of all is to the principle of free speech. There is an uncomfortable number of examples of students shouting down invited speakers — most recently, law school students at Stanford University shouted down a Trump-appointed federal judge, Stuart Kyle Duncan, who had been invited to speak by the school’s Federalist Society chapter. The Foundation of Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) calculates that there were 877 attempts from 2014 to 2022 to punish scholars for the expression of ideas that are protected by the First Amendment.

The threat to freedom of speech goes deeper than overt bullying. In On Liberty, John Stuart Mill argued that freedom of speech can only flourish if you have a diversity of opinion. But diversity of opinion is being squeezed out in US universities. Left-of-center academics vastly outnumber their right-of-center colleagues, and the left is shifting ever more to the left. In one recent survey, most conservative academics told pollsters that they encounter a “hostile environment” for their beliefs while about half of left-wing and centrist academics admit that they would discriminate against Trump supporters or conservatives.

The DEI bureaucracy is by its own lights wedded to a highly questionable notion of equality — equality of results (“equity”) rather than equality of opportunity— yet some 20% of academic jobs require candidates to submit DEI statements. In 2018, the University of California, Berkeley, weeded down a list of 894 applicants for five jobs in the life sciences to a short-list on the basis of gender and racial diversity statements alone, in a worrying example of academics ceding the selection process to the ascendant managerial class. Universities must not only stand firm against attempts to shout down speakers but also make sure that they don’t become echo chambers in which unconventional views (which these days usually means conservative or libertarian views but also means gender-critical feminism) are not given an airing at all.

Though a rebalancing of the fundamental principles of higher education might sound like an unrealistic demand, signs of progress are popping up on all fronts. Some powerful voices are questioning higher ed’s monopoly over “good jobs.” Opportunity@Work, a non-profit founded by former McKinsey consultant and Obama administration official Byron Auguste, argues that America’s obsession with degree certificates is creating “a paper ceiling” for people who have acquired skills by other routes, a ceiling that is particularly damaging to members of ethnic minorities. Some leading high-tech companies have dropped the degree requirements for some positions, as has the state of Maryland. University newspapers such as the Yale Daily News are full of outraged stories about the sheer number of academic bureaucrats.

Groups of Asian-Americans, such as those who brought a Supreme Court case against Harvard University’s affirmative action program, are rallying behind meritocracy in general, and the SAT and other objective tests in particular, on the grounds that more subjective systems of assessment are excuses for anti-Asian prejudice.

The best news may be the (albeit belated) rallying behind freedom of speech. The dean of Stanford Law School, Jenny Martinez, has produced a robust defense of the principle of free speech and insisted that all students should henceforth be obliged to attend a training session on free speech and the norms of the legal profession. A new faculty-led organization at Harvard has vowed to defend academic freedom and civil discourse. (Harvard ranks 170th out of 203 universities in FIRE’s free speech rankings.) Cornell University has decided to make free expression — its significance, history and challenges — its featured theme for discussion in the next academic year. “It is critical to our mission as a university to think deeply about freedom of expression and the challenges that result from assaults on it, which today come from both ends of the political spectrum,” says its president, Martha Pollack.

A long period of pell-mell growth has pulled the higher education sector badly out of shape. Let’s hope the coming years of retrenchment will allow universities to rein back some of their excessive enthusiasms (for adding numbers and unleashing market forces) while at the same time reinforcing their commitment to the foundational liberal principles of meritocracy and freedom-of-speech. Yale’s Latin motto is “lux et veritas.” At a time when the world is confronted with dark clouds of misinformation from both foreign autocracies and click-mad social media platforms, American universities need to demonstrate beyond doubt that they are on the side of light and truth.

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First published on: 19-04-2023 at 12:00 IST