Are US Universities Losing Their Pre-Eminence?

The internet is, of course, a hotbed of clickbait, featuring exaggerated claims, sensationalist and misleading headlines, eye-catching content, and provocative photographs designed to attract attention and entice as many distracted readers as possible to follow a link.

You know the tricks of the trade: create killer headlines with emotional appeal—to fear, disgust or anger. Invoke celebrity names and reference popular culture. Use numbers, which attract eyeballs, and hype, to generate buzz and excitement. Insert humor or questions or puns or wordplay. Offer tips. Appeal to the desire for status or prestige or exclusivity or fears of missing out. Create a sense of anticipation.

Here are some other pointers:

  • Listicles lure readers by promising easy-to-scan, easily-digestible information: “10 tips for college freshmen”
  • Teasers pique readers’ curiosity: “You’ll never believe what happened to…”
  • Create a mismatch between demand and supply: “Act fast since supplies are limited.”

Higher education has its own distinctive forms of clickbait.

  • Shock: “The Unbearable Whiteness of Ken Burns”
  • Lists of suggestions: “10 Tips for College Freshmen”
  • Targeted advice: “How a Large University Narrowed Their Equity Gap and Saw a Return on Student Success Investments”
  • “How-to” recommendations to lure readers looking for quick answers: “Annotate This: How a Common Academic Practice Can Boost Learning”
  • Promises of success: “Grow International Enrollment by Following These 3 Hidden Drivers
  • The language of crisis: “The Mental Health Crisis on Campus,” “The Male Enrollment Crisis,” “The Quiet Crisis of Parents on the Tenure Track”

But perhaps the most common form of higher ed clickbait is myth busting. You’ve seen certain examples:

  • Myth: Liberal arts graduates aren’t employable.
  • Myth: College graduates are drowning in debt.
  • Myth: Private colleges aren’t affordable.
  • Myth: College isn’t worth the money.

Of course, some supposed myths aren’t wholly wrong.

  • A college education doesn’t guarantee a middle-class standard of living.
    The value of a college education has grown proposition problematic and varies widely by major and by institution. The earnings of many graduates from less resourced institutions aren’t necessarily significantly greater than those for high school graduates in high-demand jobs. The Wall Street Journal quoted an expert announcing that “28% of bachelor’s degrees … do not have a net positive return.”
  • A college degree doesn’t necessarily certify learning.
    Grades in individual courses offer rather uncertain evidence of skills, knowledge, attainment intellectual capabilities, comprehension of underlying concepts or even effort. A better approach to measuring actual learning is to use multiple forms of assessment—homework, quizzes, exams, reports, essays, research projects, case study analysis and presentations—that allows an instructor to evaluate performance along a variety of dimensions.
  • Students from low-income backgrounds are right to worry about college’s return on investment.
    Not only are those students who come from families in the bottom half of the income distribution those most likely to drop out of college before earning a degree, many degree earners, many of whom have acquired significant amounts of debt, often discover that they little more than those with only a high school diploma.

Which brings me to my own clickbait:

  • Myth: US research universities are undeniably the best in the world.

In fact, US universities are struggling to maintain their pre-eminence in the face of mounting foreign competition.

First, competition struck American manufacturing as steel and autos that lost out to foreign rivals during the 1970s. Then, Japanese and South Korean challengers began to outstrip the US in consumer electronics and digital technology, while computer chip production shifted to Taiwan. Next, the United States started to lose some of its edge in banking, biotech, and solar panels, windmills, and other forms of environmental technology.

It’s the academy that now faces intensifying foreign challenges.

Sure, American universities still lead the international rankings, with US institutions claiming eight of the top 10 spots. But as a recent essay in Forbes Points out, three-quarters of the 335 US universities in the global Top 2,000 have seen their rankings decline.

International rankings certainly are not definitive. But another measure, international student enrollment, should also spark concern. For five straight years, international student enrollments have dropped, and this decline can’t be attributed entirely to the pandemic or to the Trump administration’s travel restrictions, border closings or obstructive visa policies. Even before the pandemic, the growth rate in international enrollment had fallen considerably.

It also reflects US institutions’ view of international students as a source of revenue, and the “overreliance on China, which accounts for about a third of international students in the United States.”

Since international students “account for around a quarter of university income,” any losses on this front carry a significant economic impact. But we should worry even more about talent acquisition. The most coveted international students in cutting-edge fields appear to be voting with their feet, electing to remain in China or enroll elsewhere, rather than entering US graduate programmes. As two observers recently pointed out, “In 2019, 57 percent of the doctorates awarded in engineering and 56 percent of those in mathematics and computer sciences went to student-visa holders.”

As Karin Fischer and Sasha Aslanian pointed out last year, the drivers of international student enrollment have shifted over time. Initially supported by missionary societies and philanthropies, including the Carnegie and Rockefeller Foundations, international student enrollment received an infusion of federal support as part of the Cold War competition with the Soviet Union. More recently, international students became key to many institutions’ business model, with the number of international students doubling between 2006 and 2018.

But the chief draw for international students was American universities’ academic pre-eminence and the potential economic opportunities that entry into the United States offered.

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

As early as 2009, James D. Adams, an economist and research associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research, identified a series of red flags. He demonstrated that “since the 1980s, however, the growth of scientific research in Europe and East Asia has exceeded that of the US,” and that there was a slowdown in US publication rates, in research output and in institutional resources dedicated to beginning in the late 1990s. Adams estimates that US research output had fallen “into the middle 40 percent and bottom 40 percent of their disciplines.”

The slowdown in research productivity (measured, in part, by citation-weight publications) was particularly pronounced in public universities, despite increases in federal research support.

Among the factors contributing to the relative decline: the hiring of fewer international scholars, the aging of the professoriate, slowing increases in public university resources and various inefficiencies and rising costs that reduced the impact of increased federal research support.

Adams also points to another contributor: the United States’ failure to spread research and development funding to a wider array of universities and ensure that these possessed research assets comparable to the top universities.

It may seem self-serving to call for greater investment in the research capabilities of a wider range of US universities. It may also strike some as at odds with the need to strengthen the quality of the education that undergraduates receive. But sustaining American universities’ edge in innovation and investing in their research pre-eminence is essential if the nation’s economy is to grow, if the country is to attract exceptional foreign talent and if the United States is to adapt successfully to the many challenges—climatic , demographic, financial and technological—that lie ahead.

Nor must bigger and broader investments in research capabilities necessarily conflict with universities’ educational responsibilities. It seems clear that this country will need to expand its homegrown talent pool, and that undergraduates’ education would benefit substantially from expanded research opportunities.

Let’s view the decline in global rankings not as a false flag but as a call to arms. We ignore signs of a relative weakening of the nation’s universities at our peril.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

Leave a Comment