In coming back to my office from a University Lecture, I cut through a main administrative parking lot. The lot has three rows of cars and a total capacity of approximately 60 cars. Though I don’t normally take much notice of cars in a parking lot, for whatever reason that day these cars caught my attention. In the entire first row of the parking lot, there was one American car. In looking at the remaining two rows, there was perhaps one more American car. The American cars were not new models and the other cars varied from relatively old to new looking.
In a totally unscientific survey after this experience, I have been looking over the cars in whatever parking lot or street I happen to be in. The proportions are very similar. American cars seems always to be a minority, sometimes a small minority while foreign cars — especially Japanese cars—are an overwhelming majority of the cars in any garage, parking lot, strip mall, city street, or neighborhood I come in contact with. And when there are a significant number of American cars, they tend to be SUV’s.
Given the difficulties that American car companies have encountered, given the American car brands that have disappeared (just recently Saturn, Pontiac, Hummer, Mercury) this is not that surprising. When I grew up, everyone I knew who drove a car drove an American car. The style, the power, the convenience features, the American cars had it all. Foreign cars existed at the fringes; American cars dominated the market. But as I learned when I purchased a Chevrolet Vega, American cars are not always a solution and are sometimes part of the problem. The Vega was a totally inadequate car and it took almost two decade before I returned to an American car.
American companies dominated the automobile industry for decades. But then because the car companies were not listening to the consumer, or because they took the consumer for granted, or because build quality and/or gas mileage did not satisfy the consumer, or because the cost structure of building an American car was no longer competitive, the market for American cars disappeared.
American higher education is still the best in the world. We deliver quality education on a large scale to a broad range of our college age population as well as or better than anyone. But just as our dominance of the automobile industry eroded to a mere shadow we should not take for granted that our dominance of higher education will continue. We have a series of challenges ranging from the increasing importance of distance learning, to the increasing impact of for-profit higher education, to the cost of higher education, to the lack of full appreciation regarding the importance of higher education to our society. We also face the challenge of increasing foreign competition in the years ahead both for international students as well as our own students. We need to formulate comprehensive responses to the issues that are confronting us. And assuming we will always be fine, since it always has been fine, will prepare us as well as GM, Ford, and Chrysler were prepared for their competitive world.
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