The latest rhetorical trope in the bad news presentation of U.S. higher education is to say -- even when home front improvements are acknowledged -- “Wait a minute! But other countries are doing better!" and rush out a litter of population ratios from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) that show the U.S. has “fallen” from 2nd to 9th or 3rd to 15th place in whatever indicator of access, participation and attainment is at issue.
The trope is not new. It’s part and parcel of the enduring propaganda of numbers. Want to wake up a culture numbed in the newspaper maps to the Final Four, that places bets on Oscar nominees, checks the Nielson ratings weekly, and still follows the Top 40? Tell them someone big is down. In the metrics of international economic comparisons we treat trade balances, GDP, and currency exchange rates the same way, even though the World Economic Forum continues to rank the U.S. No. 1 in competitiveness, and the recent strength of the dollar should tell anyone with an ounce of common sense that the markets endorse that judgment in the midst of grave economic turmoil.
Except in matters of education, the metrics of the trope are false, and our use of them both misguided and unproductive. The Spellings Commission, ETS, ACT, the Education Commission of the States, the Alliance for Excellent Education, and, most recently, the annual litany of "Measuring Up" and the College Board’s "Coming to Our Senses" all lead off their reports and pronouncements on higher education with population ratios (and national rankings) drawn from OECD’s Education at a Glance, and assume these ratios were passed down from Mt. Sinai as the tablets by which we should be judged.
The population ratios, particularly those concerning higher education participation and attainment for the 25-34 age cohort, well serve the preferred tendency of these august bodies and their reports to engage in a national orgy of self-flagellation that purposefully neglects some very basic and obvious facts.
To be sure, U.S. higher education is not doing as well as we could or should in gross participation and attainment matters, but on the tapestry of honest international accounts, we are doing better than the propaganda allows. When you read reports from other countries’ education ministries that worry about their horrendous dropout rates and problems of access, you would think they don’t take population ratios seriously.
Indeed, they don’t, and one doesn’t need more than 4th grade math to see the problems with population ratios, particularly in the matter of the U.S., which is, by far, the most populous country among the 30 OECD member states.
None of our domestic reports using OECD data bothers to recognize the relative size of our country, or the relative diversity of races, ethnicities, nativities, religions, and native languages -- and the cultures that come with these -- that characterize our 310 million residents. Though it takes a lot to move a big ship with a motley crew, these reports all would blithely compare our educational landscape with that of Denmark, for example, a country of 5.4 million, where 91 percent of the inhabitants are of Danish descent, and 82 percent belong to the same church.
For an analogous common sense case, Japan and South Korea don’t worry about students from second language backgrounds in their educational systems. Yes, France, the UK, and Germany are both much larger and more culturally diverse than Denmark, but offer nowhere near the concentration of diversities found in the U.S. It’s not that we shouldn’t compare our records to theirs; it’s just that population ratios are not the way to do it.
OECD has used census-based population ratios to bypass a host of inconsistencies in the ways its 30 member countries report education data, but, as it turns out, the 30 member countries also employ different census methodologies, so the components of the denominator from Sweden are not identical with the components of the denominator from Australia. With the cooperation of UNESCO and Eurostat’s European Union Labor Force Survey, and occasionally drawing on microdata from what is known as the Luxembourg Income Study, OECD has made gallant efforts to overcome the inconsistencies, but you can’t catch all of them.
When ordinary folk who have no stake in education propaganda look at those 30 countries and start asking questions about fertility rates, population growth rates, net immigration rates, and growth in foreign born populations, they cannot help but observe that the U.S. lives on another planet. Only 4 countries out of the 30 show a fertility rate at or greater than replacement (2.0): France, New Zealand, Mexico, and the U.S. -- and of these, Mexico has a notable negative net migration rate. Out of those 30 countries, 7 have negative or zero population growth rates and another 5 show growth rates that might as well be zero. On the other hand, the U.S. population growth rate, at 0.9 percent, is in the top five. In net immigration through 2008, only Australia, Canada, and Ireland were ahead of us (and we count only legal immigrants). Triangulating net immigration, one can examine the percentage growth in foreign-born populations over the past 15 years. In this matter, the Migration Policy Institute shows the U.S. at 45.7 percent—which is more than double the rate for Australia and Canada (I don’t have the figures for Ireland).
It is no state secret that our immigrant population is a. young, b. largely schooled in other countries with lower compulsory schooling ages, and c. pushing the U.S. population denominator up in the age brackets subject to higher education output analysis. Looking ahead to 2025 (the College Board’s target “accountability” date), Census projections show an increase of 4.3 million in the U.S. 25-34 age bracket. Of that increase 74 percent will be Latino, and another 12 percent Asian. Can you find another country, OECD or otherwise, where an analogous phenomenon is already in the cards -- or is even somewhere in the deck, waiting to be dealt? As noted: the U.S. lives on a different demographic planet.
We are often compared with Finland in higher education matters----and to our considerable disadvantage. I will give the Finnish education system a lot of credit, particularly in its pre-collegiate sector, but the comparison is bizarre. Like Denmark, Finland is a racially and linguistically homogenous (mandatory bilingual, to be sure, in Finnish and Swedish) country of 5 million, with a population growth rate of 0.1% and a net immigration rate of 1% (principally from Eastern Europe).
In the 1990s, Finland increased the capacity of its higher education system by one-third, opening 11 new polytechnic institutions known as AMKs (for the U.S. to do something equivalent would require establishing 600 new AASCU-type 4-year colleges). So the numerator of participation in higher education increased considerably, bolstered by fully-subsidized tuition (surprise, anyone?), while the denominator remained flat. Last time you looked, what happens to percentages when numerators rise and denominators don’t?
And there is more to the Finnish comparison: the median age of entrance to higher education in Finland is 23 (compared with 19 in the U.S.) and the median age at which Finnish students earn bachelor’s degrees is 28 (compared with 24-25 in the U.S.). In our Beginning Postsecondary Students longitudinal study of 1995-2001, those entering 4-year colleges in the U.S. at age 23 or higher constituted about 5 percent of 4-year college entrants, and finished bachelor’s degrees within 6 years at a 22 percent rate (versus 65 percent for those entering directly from high school). Is comparing Finnish and U.S. higher education dynamics a fair sport? If you left it up to the folks who produced the Spellings Commission report, Measuring Up, and Coming to Our Senses, it is.
International data comparisons on higher education are very slippery territory, and nobody has really mastered them yet, though Eurostat (the statistical agency for the 27 countries in the European Union) is trying, and we are going to hear more about that at a plenary session panel of our Association for Institutional Research next June. What does one do, for example, with sub-baccalaureate degrees such as our "associate," for example? Some countries have them -- they are often called “short-cycle” degrees -- and some don’t. In some countries they can be considered terminal degrees (as we regard the associate), in other countries they are not considered higher education at all, and in still others they are regarded as part of the bachelor’s degree.
Instead of or in addition to “short-cycle” degrees, some countries offer intermediate credentials such as the Swedish Diploma, awarded after the equivalent of two-thirds of a baccalaureate curriculum. Are these comparable credentials? What’s counted and what is not counted varies from country to country. I just finished plowing through three German statistical reports on higher education from different respected German sources in which the universe of “beginning students” changed from table to table. A German friend provided a gloss on the differences, but the question of what gets into the official reporting protocol went unanswered. You can be sure that the people who put together the Spellings Commission report, Measuring Up, and Coming to our Senses never thought about such things.
Why is all this important? First, to repeat the 4th grade math, which Jane Wellman tried to bring to the attention of U.S. higher education with her Apples and Oranges in the Flat World, issued by ACE last year. When denominators are flat or declining and numerators remain stable or rise slightly, percentages rise; and vice-versa when denominators rise faster than numerators. So if you use population ratios, and include the U.S., it’s going to look like we’re “declining”—which is the preferred story of the public crisis reports. Ironically, trying to teach basic math and human geography to the U.S. college-educated adults who wrote these reports is like talking to stones. They don’t want to hear it. Wellman made a valiant effort. So did Kaiser and O’Heron in Europe in 2005 (Myths and Methods on Access and Participation in International Comparison. Twente, NL: Center for Higher Education Policy Studies), but we’re going to have to do it again.
Second, it’s like the international comparisons invoked by business columnists. The BRIC (Brazil, India, China, and Russia) countries’ GDPs have been growing much faster than ours (though some are now declining faster than ours), but none of those GDPs save that of China match the GDP of California. It’s that big ship again: the U.S. starts with a much higher base---of everything: manufacturing, productivity, technological innovation. Both growth and contraction will be slower than in economies that start from a much lower base. Where we have demonstrable faults, the most convincing reference points for improvement, the most enlightening comparisons, are to be found within our systems, not theirs. So it is with higher education, where the U.S. massified long before other countries even thought about it. Now, in a world where knowledge has no borders, if other countries are learning more, we all benefit. The U.S. does not---and should not---have a monopoly on learning or knowledge. Does anyone in the house have a problem with this?
Third, OECD itself understands the limitations of population ratios for education a lot better in 2008 than it did a scant five years ago, and is now offering such indicators as cohort survival rates in higher education. I had hoped the authors of Measuring Up 2008 might have used those rates, and read all the footnotes in OECD’s 2008 Education at a Glance so that one could see what was really comparable with what. Had they done so, they would have seen that our 6-year graduation rate for students who started full-time in a 4-year college and who graduated from any institution (not just the first institution attended) is roughly 64 percent which, compared with other OECD countries who report the same way (e.g. the Netherlands and Sweden), is pretty good (unfortunately, you have to find this datum in Appendix 3 of Education at a Glance 2008). In Coming to Our Senses, the College Board at least read the basic cohort survival rate indicator, 58 percent, but didn’t catch the critical footnote that took it to 64 percent or footnotes on periods of reporting (Sweden, for example, uses a 7 year graduation marker, not 6). Next time, I guess, we’ll have to make sure the U.S. footnotes are more prominent.
Driving this new sensibility concerning cohort survival rates, both in OECD and Eurostat, is the Bologna Process in 46 European countries, under which, depending on country, anywhere from 20 percent to 80 percent of university students are now on a 3-year bachelor’s degree cycle. Guess what happens to the numerator of graduation rates when one moves from the old four and five year degrees to new three-year? Couple this trend with declining population bases (the UK, for example, projects a drop of 13 percent in the 18-20 year-old population going forward), and some European countries’ survival rates will climb to stratospheric levels. We’ll be complaining about our continual international slippage well into the 2030s. That will suit the crisis-mongers just fine, except none of it will help us understand our own situation, or where international comparisons truly matter.
And that’s the fourth -- and most important -- point. The numbers don’t help us do what we have to do. They steer us away from the task of making the pieces of paper we award into meaningful documents, representing learning that helps our students compete in a world without borders. Instead of obsession with ratios, we should look instead to what other countries are doing to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of their higher education systems in terms of student learning and enabling their graduates to move across that world. In this respect the action lines of the Bologna Process stand out: degree qualification frameworks, a “Tuning” methodology that creates reference points for learning outcomes in the disciplines, the discipline-based benchmarking statements that tell the public precisely what learning our institutions should be accountable for, Diploma Supplements that warrantee student attainment, more flexible routes of access, and ways of identifying under-represented populations and targeting them for participation through geocoding.
These features of Bologna are already being imitated (not copied) in Latin America, Australia and North Africa. Slowly but surely they are shaping a new global paradigm for higher education, and in that respect, other countries are truly doing better. Instead of playing the slippery numbers and glitz rankings, we should be studying the substance of Bologna -- where it has succeeded, where our European colleagues have learned they still have work to do, where we can do it better within our own contexts -- perhaps experiencing an epiphany or two about how to turn the big ship on which we travel into the currents of global reform.
Now that would be a constructive use of international comparisons.
Clifford Adelman’s The Bologna Club: What U.S. Higher Education Can Learn from a Decade of European Reconstruction and Learning Accountability from Bologna: a Higher Education Policy-Primer can be found on the Web site of the Institute for Higher Education Policy, where he is a senior associate. The analysis and opinions in this essay are those of the author, and should not be interpreted as reflecting those of the institute.
Those of us who call ourselves international educators often become overly absorbed in the minutiae of our work, obsessing over various quantitative and qualitative indicators of success. After all, it's exhilarating, rewarding and unrelenting. We bask in the glow of accomplishment and gratification, knowing that we can make a difference in the lives of individuals and even nations.
There is much more to our work, however, than the warm and fuzzy feeling that comes from helping a young person realize her dream of overseas study or bringing peoples closer together. It is not all about sitting around the proverbial campfire, hand in hand, singing "It's a Small World (After All)."
By assuming a technocratic stance, we fail to ask ourselves such fundamental questions as: Whose agenda are we advancing? Whose bidding are we doing? In a very real sense we miss the forest for the trees. A 2008 diplomatic memo about the role America can play in reforming Vietnam’s education system provides an intriguing and instructive case in point, and shows the extent to which our work can be used as a tool of soft power.
Its 4,330 words and eight pages, chock-full of optimistic references to seizing opportunities and capitalizing on the admiration of Vietnamese for the U.S. higher education system, contain a Chief of Mission's well-documented, cogently argued and passionate appeal. The memo begins with a sweeping indictment of Vietnamese higher education and an unvarnished hope:
"Moving from today’s failed system, protected by a hide-bound and largely unqualified hierarchy of educators, will not be easy, but the United States has a unique opportunity to make a big difference and put its stamp on Vietnam's education system well into the future... If we walk through this open door [my italics], we will be engaging, with the explicit support of top leaders, in a unique opportunity to profoundly influence on [sic] Vietnam's educational system."
It ends with an action request entitled "New Educational Programs Require New Washington Resources." "While we are already making progress," the authors note with a degree of self-satisfaction and eager anticipation, "greater resources will allow us to advance this agenda much further."
While the memo includes noble references to helping Vietnam "produce the managers and skilled workers needed to keep its economic expansion on track and to lift more of the population out of poverty," the core message is expressed most succinctly and powerfully in this passage: "Adding new foreign assistance resources now and supporting the creation of a wide range of strategic public-private partnerships will maximize American influence on Vietnam’s educational system and thus on the future shape of Vietnamese society."
The U.S. is portrayed as a knight in shining armor, with its renowned can-do attitude and munificent spirit, coming to the rescue of millions of desperate Vietnamese students and parents. An example of this messianic complex, infused with wishful thinking, reads as follows: "In responding to Vietnam's call, we would ensure not only that Vietnam's tens of millions of students, but also their education-obsessed parents, see the United States as a key partner in their personal and collective futures."
Over half of Vietnam's population is under 25 years of age, which means that the "American War,” as it is known in Vietnam, is something most Vietnamese have learned about only from textbooks and family members. This consciousness, combined with an openness to and curiosity about the world, including generally positive perceptions of the U.S., creates favorable conditions to influence a generation and, possibly, the future of a country. At least, this is the wish expressed in the memo.
In The Limits of Power -- The End of American Exceptionalism, Andrew Bacevich describes American exceptionalism, a unique incarnation of U.S. nationalism that is of particular relevance to Vietnam, in the following way:
"Humility imposes an obligation of a different sort. It summons Americans to see themselves without blinders. The enemy of humility is sanctimony, which gives rise to the conviction that American values and beliefs are universal and that the nation itself serves providentially assigned purposes. This conviction finds expression in a determination to remake the world in what we imagine to be America's image."
In essence, education is seen as the ultimate soft power tool, a highly effective means of influence and a far-reaching agent of change in a long-term strategy to mold Vietnam in America's image, accomplishing through peaceful means what the United States failed to achieve through those of a military nature in the Second Indochina War.
'Just Because I'm Paranoid Doesn't Mean They're Not Out to Get Me'
What is so odious about the memo is not the incendiary rhetoric, the condescending tone, or the lack of veracity of the information presented. The facts, figures, analysis and assertion that Vietnam's higher education system is in crisis are on the mark and mirror what you find in the state-controlled Vietnamese media on an almost daily basis. It is that the United States brazenly seeks to exploit a glaring weakness in Vietnamese society for geopolitical gain, to walk through an open door, as it were.
The Vietnamese have in general long since "moved on" vis-a-vis the war, a salve to many Americans who come to Vietnam for the first time, anxious about how they will be perceived and treated. But Americans, U.S. nongovernmental organizations (NGOs,) and the U.S. government nonetheless retain a "special" status because of the bloodstained history between the two nations. This translates into more attention, increased scrutiny and greater suspicion than for other governments and organizations.
After all, three million Vietnamese perished in the war and millions of survivors suffered as a result of the debilitating U.S.-led economic embargo that was imposed in 1975 and lifted in 1994, a prelude to the normalization of diplomatic relations between the former enemies a year later. There are living reminders of the physical legacy of the war in the remaining Amerasians, veterans and others who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PSTD) and the hundreds of thousands of victims -- young and old -- of Agent Orange and Unexploded Ordnance (UXO).
From an official Vietnamese perspective the U.S. strategy outlined in the memo is a textbook example of why "peaceful evolution," a long-term attempt to effect system change through peaceful means, looms large in Vietnam's political vocabulary and why its government is (and probably should be) paranoid about U.S. intentions in its country. Not surprisingly, there are individuals and factions within the Vietnamese government and Communist Party who are concerned about what they perceive to be an orchestrated attempt to promote a "color revolution."
While the official Vietnamese view may exaggerate the scope, potency and immediacy of the threat, the general thrust of its assessment is accurate. The memo, a leaked document that reflects the true thinking and actual plans of U.S. policy makers, is compelling proof.
After reminding readers "just how much we are already doing with current resources" and "how significant and unique an opportunity we face today," it concludes with this plea and prediction: "With just a fraction of spending now devoted to some of other programs and activities in the region, we can reshape this nation in ways that guarantee a deep, positive impact for decades to come. If we want the Vietnam of 2020 to look more like South Korea than China, now is the time to act."
Following this line of reasoning, the U.S. government -- in its dreams -- could have its cake and it eat it, too: close ties to the U.S., Vietnam's metamorphosis into the Southeast Asian equivalent of South Korea and its possible emergence as a regional counterforce to Vietnam's "big brother" to the north and U.S. nemesis, China.
Of 'Blue Sky' Exercises and Pie in the Sky
The Embassy staff who penned this erstwhile confidential document seem almost giddy with excitement at the prospect that the U.S. could somehow influence the political course of events in Vietnam through educational exchange and in-country activities in support of higher education.
The official author, the former ambassador Michael Michalak, who with ample justification referred to himself as the "education ambassador" throughout most of his three-and-a-half-year tenure, concludes by noting that "Many will read this message as a 'blue sky' exercise, perhaps shaking their heads in wonder that a Chief of Mission would forward such a broad range of suggestions. Clearly, our proposals need to be considered within the universe of competing demands."
Aside from the officially desired impact of current and proposed in-country projects, one of the more dubious assumptions of the "US-Vietnam Education Memo" is that Vietnamese who study in the U.S. will return home not only as friends of America but as friends of the U.S. government. (In the 2009-10 academic year, there were more than 13,000 Vietnamese studying in the U.S. Vietnam ranks ninth among all places of origin, according to the Open Doors 2010 report.) The memo notes that Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung "has also asked for our help in launching the Ph.D. studies in the United States of at least 2,500 young Vietnamese, on the understanding that these men and women will return as the core of the nation’s political and academic elite in the decades to come."
The idea, so it goes, is that U.S.-educated Vietnamese will be positively predisposed toward things American, including U.S. policy objectives and Pax Americana. The official hope, steeped in arrogance and solipsism, is that many will be in a position to implement Amercentric change in the decades to come and will be amenable to doing so.
For those Vietnamese who benefit from one of the few U.S. government scholarships available to them (e.g., Fulbright Student Program, Vietnam Education Foundation) there is also the expectation that, once welcomed into the fold, alumni will feel eternally grateful for the opportunity they've been given and act accordingly down the road.
The letter and spirit of the memo are not exactly what Sen. J. William Fulbright had in mind when he proposed the creation of what has become the U.S. government's flagship scholarship program and one of its more noble undertakings. Fulbright once said about the objectives of educational exchange: "Its purpose is to acquaint Americans with the world as it is and to acquaint students and scholars from many lands with America as it is--not as we wish it were or as we might wish foreigners to see it, but exactly as it is -- which by my reckoning is an 'image' of which no American need be ashamed." (From the foreword to The Fulbright Program: A History)
Like any country, the United States has its strengths and successes -- models, approaches, ways of thinking -- that could be adapted and emulated in a country like Vietnam. The U.S. also has its shortcomings, red flags and cautionary tales. It is, in the words of Anatole Lieven, author of America Right or Wrong: An Anatomy of American Nationalism, "a mortal nation among nations," not the shining city on a hill that many of its citizens believe it to be. The notion that international educational exchange should contribute to remaking other societies in the United States' image is not only cynical and misguided; it is also delusional -- so much pie in the sky.
Mark A. Ashwill
Mark A. Ashwill is managing director and founder of Capstone Vietnam, a Hanoi-based human resource development company. He was country director of the Institute of International Education in Vietnam from 2005 to 2009, and is author of Vietnam Today: A Guide to a Nation at a Crossroads (with Thai Ngoc Diep). He blogs at An International Educator in Vietnam.
Submitted by Anonymous on February 18, 2005 - 4:00am
A Government Accountability Office report released Friday finds that the average time foreign scholars and students must wait for a key federal visa review has shrunk to about two weeks from more than two months last year, according to the Associated Press.