How to Educate America

U.S. News and World Report #1 ranked university, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, U.S.A.
U.S. News and World Report #1 ranked university, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, U.S.A.

Will the U.S. remain competitive in higher education?

by Dinesh Sharma.

There is a tectonic shift taking place in higher education. Driven by technology, greater access, and global competition, higher education cannot remain the purview of the few, from Chicago to Shanghai and Srinagar. How long can the U.S. retain its pre-eminent status as the global leader in higher education — with smaller budgets, skyrocketing costs, and high drop-out rates — while emerging economies thirsty for knowledge are ‘chasing the American dream’ and building their own capabilities?

Former Provost of Columbia University Jonathan Cole, in his book The Great American University, makes a compelling case that the American University system — a complex network of publicly and privately funded teaching, research, and innovation centers that evolved with the rise of what Henry Luce called the “American Century” — is a national resource that must be preserved in an era of global competition.

For almost 65 days from May through July 2013, students from New York City universities occupied the tiny park outside The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art’s Foundation Building, where the college president’s office is located. They were protesting the change in the no-tuition policy that has been in place at the historic college since 1859; they were carrying banners that echoed something of a bygone era: “Free Education To All.” Due to dire financial circumstance, the president of this landmark institution has decided to reverse the tradition; the board of trustees has voted to levy a tuition starting in 2014. The battle between the students and administrators is far from over as they have agreed to form a working committee to explore alternatives.

The events at Cooper Union are emblematic in some ways of what is happening in the rest of the country. The latest economic downturn has shown the need for long term investment in public institutions. American universities have been a model of innovation throughout the world, creating a rich supply of ideas and resources for the emergent global world. The complex economic, social, scientific, technological, and medical problems we face can be headed off only by …

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