Something the United States really excels at is having the very best universities in the world. But the sense in which this is most clearly true isn’t that our universities, on average, are the best in the world. Rather, the point is that of the world’s very best universities the vast majority are American. But as Kevin Carey notes this is hardly all that matters:
Countries around the world are racing to compete in higher education. (Ben Wildasvky has written what promises to be an interesting book on this subject that will be published in a few months.) And they all want to compete in the same way: by building world-class research universities. Indeed, the Shanghai Jiao Tong University rankings of world universities, which are dominated by American institutions, were specifically created as a way to benchmark Chinese universities against the world’s best. World-class research universities only admit the best students. So if you’re China and you want to go from having zero top-ranked universities (Nanjing University, China’s highest-ranked, doesn’t crack the Top 200), to, say, five top-ranked universities, one of the obvious things to do is create a ruthless tournament-style admissions process that sifts through millions of students to find the cream of the crop. (That and bribe some Nobel prize winners to set up shop in Shanghai.)
But at the same time that national governments see world-class research universities as key elements of prestige competition, something else is going on: globalization, economic development and the information age are rapidly expanding the population of people worldwide who want and need a college education. Running them all through a ruthless tournament-style competition and branding the losers as failures is a lousy way to meet that need. It also implicitly and substantially underestimates the level of public resources required. In an otherwise very good article in the Atlantic, James Fallows cited the fact that American has 17 of the top 20 universities in the Shanghai Jaio Tong rankings as hopeful evidence that America is not poised for decline. But it’s really the quality of universities 500 through 1,500 that are going to make the difference in the 21st century. It’s easy (and cheap) enough to allow a handful of relatively small, extremely famous, and fabulously wealthy private universities to get richer and more famous still. Building a high-quality college and university system for the large majority of high school graduates is a lot tougher and more expensive — but that’s what the nation needs.
The point for China and India is this. If you’re a giant country it should be pretty easy to just sort through your existing high school graduates — even if your high schools are actually really bad — and find 6,500 really smart kids. That’s like Harvard without the legacies. Then obviously you need to recruit some faculty. The total Faculty of Arts and Sciences budget at Harvard is a bit less than $1 billion and lots of stuff (janitors, cafeteria workers, etc.) can be done cheaper in China. So it shouldn’t be all that hard to create a world-class college without tackling any of a large country’s fundamental problems. But by the same token, while this would be nice in prestige terms it wouldn’t actually solve anything. It’d be the equivalent of China mounting a manned mission to the Moon — a display of aggregate economic clout and adequate government organizational capacity.
But what China really needs is to over time systematically upgrade the overall standard of education in the country. High schools and colleges that can impart a decent education to large swathes of the population.
For the United States, I think Carey sometimes understates the real value that our prestige universities bring us. I think Stanford/Berkeley and Harvard/MIT have something to do with the Silicon Valley and Route 128 clusters, for example. But the risk is of a dangerous complacency. Our higher education sector is very large and quite important to our economy and our prospects. But the operation of its key institutions is not very well understood (indeed, the economics of nonprofits in general are not well understood) and we basically don’t do anything at all to measure the performance of our colleges. The fact that our very best universities are world-famous and attract talent and interest for all around the globe is nice, but it can lead people to just assume that everything’s fine throughout the sector when the reality is that we actually have no idea.