“The sole superpower presently on earth may not have lost all of his clothes, but he has lost at least his shirt and probably more.”
That’s how John A. Douglass, a senior research fellow at the Center for Studies in Higher Education at the University of California’s Berkeley campus, begins his new research paper, titled “ The Waning of America’s Higher Education Advantage: International Competitors Are No Longer Number Two and Have Big Plans in the Global Economy .” He argues that declines in U.S. participation rates in higher education, particularly among younger students, combined with misguided political priorities, have put U.S. higher education in position to fall behind global competitors -- perhaps dramatically so.
The paper, which is aimed at spelling out problems in American higher education as Douglass sees them, is adapted from a forthcoming book by the researcher called The Conditions for Admission: Access, Equity, and the Social Contract of Public Universities, from Stanford University Press.
“The academic research enterprise remains vibrant,” writes Douglass. “But participation and degree attainment rates have leveled off and are showing signs of decline -- seemingly more than just a bump or short-term market correction.”
The postsecondary participation rate for individuals aged 18 to 24 in the U.S. is 34 percent, according to a recent study by the Education Commission of the States. Rhode Island has the highest rate at 48 percent; Alaska has the lowest at 19 percent. The paper notes that relative to most other economic competitors, significantly smaller proportions of American college-age students are entering scientific fields.
Douglass says that other nations are using government policy to match or exceed U.S. participation rates and to more fully integrate higher education into national economic and social policy. “They have many problems of their own,” according to Douglass, “but it is the political will and trajectory of their efforts that offers a sharp contrast to the U.S.” He notes that for the first time since the late 1800s, America no longer has the world’s highest rate of young students going on to a postsecondary institution.
In recent months, members of the Bush administration -- often pointing to Thomas Friedman’s 2005 book, The World is Flat, and recent reports by the National Academy of Sciences  and other panels  -- appear to have awakened to such concerns. Officials have focused on new efforts to bolster higher education, particularly in the fields of foreign language and math and science , but some budgetary cuts have had adverse effects on specific research and training programs .
The administration has also supported the work of Education Secretary Margaret Spelling’s Commission on the Future of Higher Education , but many experts have been cautious about whether specific changes will be implemented after the report is released later this summer.
Douglass is somewhat skeptical about whether the recent federal attention will result in significant changes, given the country's other major issues. He points to “the debacle in Iraq, astounding increases in the national debt and lackluster exports, a school system perpetually struggling with finances and performance, out-of-control medical costs, and a growing disparity between rich and poor” as evidence that the government is not attuned to the issues facing higher education. “Perhaps it is appropriate to claim that those currently in control of both houses of Congress and the White House are pretty good at cutting government, but they don’t know how to run it,” he argues in the report.
Douglass says that interventionist efforts of national governments in the European Union to direct their institutions of higher education illustrate that lawmakers abroad often view higher education as a major policy issue in a way that U.S. politicos do not. He notes that in 2004, Prime Minister Tony Blair “risked a close vote in Parliament” to establish a new fees and financial aid policy in England.
“The contrast with the U.S. is stark; with the exception of political battles in America over admissions to a few selective public universities, higher education is not a high profile national issue,” writes the researcher. “While EU countries are engaged in national and international debates regarding the future of higher education, setting goals for expanding access, considering and implementing alternative funding schemes, and negotiating cooperative initiatives between nations, such as the Bologna Agreement, American higher education remains a second-tier political issue.”
Douglass also notes that over time, the federal government has reduced the level of funding available for financial aid relative to the cost of tuition in both public and private institutions. Tuition at public higher education institutions has grown at a rate roughly equivalent to the rate of inflation in most other service industries, according to the researcher, yet the amount of aid provided by both federal and state governments, especially in the form of grant aid, has been well below the general rate of inflation. In turn, public institutions have attempted to make up for a portion of the decline in government investment and the impact of rising costs by raising tuition.
“The crisis of the publics -- the underfunding and under-investment in public colleges and universities, which are the primary providers of postsecondary education -- is not a mainstream political issue,” writes Douglass. “For this and a variety of other reasons, the U.S. has become relatively complacent in maintaining its higher education advantage."