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Are US universities losing their advantage?

Are US universities losing their advantage?

The internet, of course, is a hotbed of clicks, with exaggerated statements, sensational and deceptive headlines, engaging content and provocative photos designed to attract attention and encourage as many distracted readers to follow the link.

You know the tricks of this trade: create headlines with emotional appeal – fear, disgust or anger. Call up the names of celebrities and refer to popular culture. Use the numbers that attract the eyeballs and the hype to cause the hype and excitement. Insert humor, questions, puns or a play on words. Offer tips. An appeal to the desire for status, prestige or exclusivity or the fear of missing out. Create a sense of anticipation.

Here are some other indicators:

  • The lists entice readers by promising easy-to-view, easy-to-digest information: “10 tips for college freshmen”
  • The teasers are of interest to readers: “You will never believe what happened to …”
  • Create a mismatch between supply and demand: “Act fast, because supplies are limited.”

Higher education has its distinctive forms of clickbait.

  • Shock: “Ken Burns’s Unbearable Whiteness”
  • Lists of proposals: “10 tips for freshmen”
  • Target advice: “How a large university has reduced the capital gap and benefited from investing in student success”
  • “How to Do” recommendations to engage readers looking for quick answers: “Abstract: How General Academic Practice Can Improve Learning”
  • Promise of success: “Increase the number of international registrations by following these 3 hidden drivers
  • The language of the crisis: “Crisis of mental health on campus”, “Crisis of admission of men”, “Silent crisis of parents on internship”

But perhaps the most common form of high-level clickbait is the destruction of myths. You’ve probably seen examples:

  • Myth: Humanities graduates cannot find employment.
  • Myth: College graduates are drowning in debt.
  • Myth: Private colleges are not for the price.
  • Myth: College is not worth the money.

Of course, some supposed myths are not entirely wrong.

  • College education does not guarantee a standard of living for the middle class.
    The value of higher education is becoming increasingly problematic and varies greatly depending on the major and institution. The incomes of many graduates of institutions with fewer resources are not necessarily much higher than the salaries of high school graduates in high-demand jobs. The Wall Street Journal quotes an expert who declared that “28% of bachelor’s degrees … have no net positive return”.
  • A college diploma is not necessarily a certificate of instruction.
    Assessments in individual courses provide fairly vague evidence of skills, knowledge, intellectual achievement, understanding of basic concepts, or even effort. The best approach to measuring actual learning is to use several forms of assessment – homework, quizzes, exams, reports, essays, research projects, case studies and presentations – that allow the teacher to assess performance on different aspects.
  • Low-income students are right to worry about the return on college investment.
    Not only that, students who come from families in the lower half of the income distribution are more likely to drop out of college before getting a degree. more than those who only have a high school diploma.

What brings me to my own clickbait:

  • Myth: U.S. research universities are arguably the best in the world.

In fact, U.S. universities are struggling to maintain their advantage in the face of increased foreign competition.

First, the competition struck American production with both steel and cars, which in the 1970s increasingly lost out to foreign competitors. Then Japanese and South Korean contenders began to overtake the U.S. in consumer electronics and digital technology, and computer chip production moved to Taiwan. Next, the United States began to lose its dominance in banking, biotechnology and solar panels, windmills and other forms of environmental technology.

It is an academy that is now facing increasing foreign challenges.

Of course, American universities still lead the international rankings, and American institutions rank eight of the top 10. But how a recent essay Forbes notes that three-quarters of the 335 U.S. universities that are among the world’s top 2,000 are seeing a decline in rankings.

International rankings are certainly not final. But another measure, enrollment of international students, should also be a concern. For five years in a row, the number of international students has been declining, and that decline may not be entirely due to a pandemic or restrictions by the Trump administration on travel, border closures, or obstructive visa policies. Even before the pandemic, the growth rate of international entrants fell significantly.

It also reflects the view of American institutions on international students as a source of income as well as on “excessive dependence on China, which accounts for about a third of international students in the United States».

Because international students »make up about a quarter of the university’s revenue”, Any losses on this front have a significant economic impact. But you need to worry even more about acquiring talent. The most coveted international students in advanced fields seem to be voting with their feet, choosing to stay in China or enroll elsewhere rather than enroll in graduate school in the United States. How recently noted by two observers“In 2019, 57 percent of doctoral students in engineering and 56 percent in mathematics and computer science received student visa holders.”

Like Karin Fischer and Sasha Aslanyan noted last year, the admission factors of international students have changed over time. Initially supported by missionary societies and philanthropies, including the Carnegie Endowment and the Rockefeller Foundation, the enrollment of international students received federal support in competition with the Cold War Soviet Union. More recently, international students have become key to the business model of many institutions, and the number of international students has doubled between 2006 and 2018.

But the main attraction of international students was the superiority of American universities in their studies and the potential economic opportunities that opened up entry into the United States.

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

Back in 2009, James D. Adams, an economist and researcher at the National Bureau of Economic Research, identified a number of red flags. He demonstrated that “since the 1980s, however, research growth in Europe and East Asia has outpaced growth in the U.S.,” and that there has been a slowdown in U.S. publications, research products, and institutional resources destined to begin in the late 1990s. . Adams believes that U.S. research results have fallen “by an average of 40 percent and a lower 40 percent of their disciplines.”

The slowdown in research performance (partly measured by publications with citations) has been particularly pronounced in public universities, despite increased federal support for research.

Factors contributing to the relative decline include hiring fewer international scholars, an aging profession, slowing the increase in resources of public universities, and various inefficiencies and rising costs that have reduced the impact of increased federal research support.

Adams also points to another contribution: the inability of the United States to extend research and development funding to a wider range of universities and ensure that these institutions have research assets comparable to the best universities.

It may seem selfish to call for greater investment in the research capabilities of a wider range of U.S. universities. To some, this may also seem contrary to the need to strengthen the quality of education that students receive. But maintaining the advantage of American universities in innovation and investing in their advantage in research is very important if the country’s economy wants to grow, if the country wants to attract exceptional foreign talent, and if the United States wants to successfully adapt to many challenges – climate, demographics, finance and technology. it’s ahead.

Also, greater and wider investment in research opportunities does not necessarily conflict with the responsibilities of universities in the field of education. It seems clear that this country will need to expand its own talent pool, and that undergraduate education will benefit greatly from expanding research opportunities.

Let’s view the downgrade of world rankings not as a fake flag but as a call to arms. We ignore the signs of the relative weakening of national universities at our peril.

Stephen Mintz is Professor of History at the University of Texas at Austin.

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