Are American universities losing their pre-eminence?

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The internet is, of course, a hotbed of clickbait, with exaggerated claims, sensationalized and misleading headlines, eye-catching content and provocative photographs designed to grab attention and entice as many distracted readers as possible to follow a link. .

You know the tricks of the trade. Create impactful titles with emotional appeal – to fear, loathing or anger. Invoke celebrity names and reference popular culture. Use numbers, which attract eyeballs, and hype, to generate buzz and excitement. Insert humor or questions or puns or puns. Offer advice. Appeal to the desire for status or prestige or exclusivity or the fear of missing out. Create a sense of anticipation.

Here are some other pointers:

  • Lists entice readers by promising information that’s easy to scan and digest: “10 tips for freshmen”
  • Teasers pique readers’ curiosity: “You’ll never believe what happened to…”
  • Create a mismatch between demand and supply: “Act quickly because supplies are limited.”

Higher education has its own distinctive forms of clickbait.

  • Shock: “The unbearable whiteness of Ken Burns”
  • Suggestion Lists: “10 Tips for Freshmen”
  • Focused Advice: “How a Great University Closed its Equity Gap and Saw a Return on Investments in Student Success”
  • “How to” recommendations to attract readers looking for quick answers: “Mark this up: How common academic practice can boost learning”
  • Success Promise: “Grow International Listings by Following These 3 Hidden Factors
  • The Language of Crisis: “The Campus Mental Health Crisis”, “The Male Schooling Crisis”, “The Silent Crisis of Tenure Track Parents”

But perhaps the most common form of next level clickbait is myth busting. You have certainly seen examples of this:

Myth: Liberal arts graduates are not employable.

Myth: University graduates are drowning in debt.

Myth: Private colleges are not affordable.

Myth: College isn’t worth the effort.

Of course, some supposed myths are not entirely false.

  • A college education does not guarantee a middle-class standard of living.
    The value proposition of a college education has become increasingly problematic and varies widely by major and institution. The earnings of many graduates from less resourced institutions are not necessarily much higher than those of high school graduates in high-demand jobs. The Wall Street Journal quoted an expert announcing that “28% of bachelor’s degrees…have no net positive return.”
  • A college diploma does not necessarily certify learning.
    Individual course grades offer rather uncertain evidence of skill, knowledge, achievement of intellectual abilities, understanding of underlying concepts, or even effort. A better approach to measuring actual learning is to use multiple forms of assessment—assignments, quizzes, exams, reports, essays, research projects, case study analysis, and presentations—that allow an instructor to assess performance in a variety of dimensions.
  • Students from low-income backgrounds are right to be concerned about the return on college investment.
    Not only are students from families in the bottom half of the income distribution the most likely to drop out before graduating, but many graduates, many of whom have incurred significant debt, often find that they earn little more than those with only a high school diploma.

Which brings me to my own clickbait:

Myth: America’s research universities are undeniably the best in the world.

In fact, American universities are struggling to maintain their pre-eminence in the face of increasing foreign competition.

First, competition hit American manufacturing as steel and automobiles increasingly lost to foreign rivals during the 1970s. Then Japanese and South Korean challengers began to edge out the states United in consumer electronics and digital technology, while computer chip production has shifted to Taiwan. Then the United States began to lose some of its edge in banking, biotechnology, and solar panels, wind turbines, and other forms of environmental technology.

It is the academy that now faces increasingly intense foreign challenges.

Of course, American universities still top the international rankings, with American institutions claiming 8 of the top 10 spots. But as a recent Forbes essay points out, three-quarters of the 335 US universities in the Global Top 2000 have seen their rankings decline.

International rankings are certainly not definitive. But another measure, the enrollment of international students, should also raise concerns. For five straight years, international student enrollment has plummeted, and this decline cannot be entirely attributed to the pandemic or the Trump administration’s travel restrictions, border closures, or obstructive visa policies. Even before the pandemic, the growth rate of international enrollments had declined significantly.

It also reflects the view of US institutions on international students as a source of income, and the “overreliance on China, which accounts for about a third of international students in the United States”.

Given that international students “account for about a quarter of university income”, any loss on this front has a significant economic impact. But we should be even more concerned about talent acquisition. The most coveted international students in cutting-edge fields appear to be voting with their feet, choosing to stay in China or enroll elsewhere, rather than enter graduate programs in the United States. As two observers recently pointed out:
“In 2019, 57% of doctorates awarded in engineering and 56% of those in mathematics and computer science went to student visa holders….”

As Karin Fischer and Sasha Aslanian pointed out last year, the drivers of international student enrollment have changed over time. Initially supported by missionary societies and philanthropies, including the Carnegie and Rockefeller foundations, international student enrollment received an infusion of federal support as part of Cold War competition with the Soviet Union. More recently, international students have become key to the business model of many institutions, with the number of international students doubling between 2006 and 2018.

But the main attraction for international students was the academic preeminence of American universities and the potential economic opportunities that entering the United States offered.

A perceived decline in the quality and competitiveness of American higher education will have far-reaching consequences.

As early as 2009, James D. Adams, an economist and research associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research, identified a series of red flags. He demonstrated that “since the 1980s, however, the growth of scientific research in Europe and East Asia has exceeded that of the United States”, and that there has been a slowdown in publication rates in United States, research results and institutional resources dedicated to start-up in Asia. the late 1990s. Adams estimates that American research output has fallen “into the middle 40% and bottom 40% of their disciplines.”

The slowdown in research productivity (measured, in part, by the weight of citations in publications) has been particularly pronounced in public universities, despite increased federal support for research.

Among the factors contributing to the relative decline: the hiring of fewer international researchers, the aging of the faculty, the slowing of the increase in resources of public universities, as well as various inefficiencies and rising costs that reduce the impact of increased federal support for research.

Adams also points to another contributor: the failure of the United States to distribute research and development funding to a wider range of universities and to ensure that these institutions have research assets comparable to top universities.

It may seem selfish to call for greater investment in the research capabilities of a wider range of American universities. It may also seem to some to be at odds with the need to strengthen the quality of education that undergraduate students receive. But maintaining America’s universities’ lead in innovation and investing in their research preeminence are essential if the country’s economy is to grow, if the country is to attract foreign talent and if the United States is to successfully adapt to the many challenges – climatic, demographic, financial and technological – that lie ahead.

Moreover, greater and broader investments in research capabilities need not necessarily conflict with the educational responsibilities of universities. It seems clear that this country will need to expand its local talent pool and that the education of undergraduates would benefit greatly from expanded research opportunities.

Consider the drop in global rankings not as a false flag but as a call to arms. It is at our peril that we ignore the signs of a relative weakening of the country’s universities.

Steven Mintz is a professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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