The Decline of America's Universities

See also: China Universities on the Move

Since 2004, the world's top 200 universities have been ranked annually by the Times Higher Education-QS World University Rankings. Recently, Asian education systems have been making significant gains on the United States, long considered to have the world’s best education system.

In 2008, the US had 37 universities in the top 100 and 58 in the top 200. In 2009, that dropped to 32 and 54, respectively; although 12 of the top 16 in the world are still in the US. Between 2008 and 2009, Japan went from 10 in the top 200 to 11, Hong Kong went from 4 to 5, South Korea went from 3 to 4, and mainland China maintained its position with 6.

Having visited nearly half of these Asian universities and having seen their extensive expenditure on research facilities, I am not surprised when I read about Asian nations making enormous investments in their universities. Asian nations are investing to produce massive numbers of innovative people who can contribute significantly to economic growth.

I am surprised, however, when I read about concomitant funding reductions for US universities, particularly public ones. For example, the University of California, long regarded as the nation's leading public university, recently suffered a US$813 million reduction in state financing. Disinvestment is also happening to universities in Michigan, Washington, Arizona, and many other states.

Budgets are being cut from state-supported universities primarily because states are facing budget shortfalls of historic proportions. However, short-sighted state politics like this will lead to long-term consequences. For example, state budget cuts force universities to raise tuition, cap enrollment, and cut academic programs. These changes result in a smaller number of graduates, which in turn results in a shrinking skilled workforce.

The US needs a growing, skilled workforce, not a shrinking one, to continue to compete in the global economy. Foreign students have for decades made up an important part of that skilled workforce, staying in the US to work in such technology incubators as California’s Silicon Valley and the Route 128 area in Massachusetts. In the 2008-2009 academic year, 671,616 foreign students were enrolled in American colleges and universities. China supplies by far the biggest number of those students, with 98,510 graduate and undergraduates in American schools.

Currently, the US has the best universities in the world. They attract the best students from around the world. After graduating, these non-US students often stay in the US to work, helping to fuel the nation's innovation and economic growth. Today 55 percent of PhD engineering students are foreign born, along with 45 percent of graduate physicists working in the US.

However, when US universities decline in quality and lose their elite status because of budget cuts, bright students from around the world will seek universities in other nations. The effect of overseas students on the US scientific community is crucial. More than 30 percent of American Nobel Prize winners in Medicine and Physiology between 1901 and 2005, for instance, were foreign born.

The goal of Asian nations is to create world-class universities that surpass US universities. They have "every prospect of success," argued Yale University President Richard C. Levin in a recent lecture, titled "The Rise of Asia's Universities." Levin also stated that rising Asian nations "all recognize the importance of an educated workforce as a means to economic growth and the impact of research in driving innovation and competitiveness."

It should be noted, of course, that too many of Asia’s universities continue to have the same problems as their primary and secondary schools in that they rely heavily on rote learning, with negative effects on critical thinking and innovation. Singapore, for instance, has invested millions of dollars in seeking to foster innovation with little effect. But Asian educators are becoming better at seeking solutions to the problems of innovation and creativity.

Speaking at the inaugural Asian Roundtable of Presidents of Universities of Education, Xu Jialu, director of the College of Chinese Language and Culture at Beijing Normal University, said that China needs to produce massive numbers of innovative people if it is to continue its robust economic growth. He added, "In Chinese education, the development of a creative mindset and abilities among students is urgently needed."

In the current issue of Foreign Policy Magazine, Nobel Prize-winning economist Robert Fogel predicts that China's GDP will reach US$123 trillion by 2040 partially because of "the enormous investment China is making in education." He also predicts that the US's share of global GDP will be roughly one third that of China's.

Without increased investment, the US will no longer have the best universities in the world, will no longer be the world's innovation leader, and will no longer have the world's largest economy. It's time for the U.S. to increase, not reduce, university funding. As the American patriot, inventor, and philosopher Benjamin Franklin put it, "An investment in knowledge pays the best dividends."

Bill Costello, M.Ed., is an education columnist, blogger, and author of Awaken Your Birdbrain: Using Creativity to Get What You Want. He is based in the US, and can be reached at