Global #highered and the 99%

During the past year — since the Occupy Wall Street protest movement gained traction last fall — we here in the United States have heard a lot about the 99 percent.

But recently I’ve learned about another 99 percent — one that exists in the realm of higher education on a global scale. And it has more to do with meritocracy than privilege.

In the hyper-competitive higher education systems of India and China, the very best and brightest students — the 1 percenters in terms of academic ability — are “the ‘chosen ones'” who “get their choice of university, putting them on a path to fast-track careers, higher incomes and all the benefits of an upper-middle-class life.” This comes from a recent report from The Wall Street Journal titled, Can U.S. Universities Stay On Top? (Yes, yet another story about the decline of higher education in America. It seems we just can’t escape them.)

The 1 percent in India and China are the smartest and most academically equipped, and for them, their academic acumen is a ticket to the good life, according to this WSJ report.

Then there are the 99 percent. “The system doesn’t work so well” for them, the WSJ reports.

There are nearly 40 million university students in China and India. Most attend institutions that churn out students at low cost. Students complain that their education is “factory style” and “uninspired.” Employers complain that many graduates need remedial training before they are fully employable.

All of which alludes to an answer to the question in the headline. Yes, U.S. universities can stay on top, perhaps for now. The authors of this WSJ piece, both affiliated with the Boston Consulting Group, briefly discuss their “E4” formula determining global competitiveness of national higher ed systems. The U.S. and U.K. are first and second, respectively, followed by China, Germany and India.

But the formula isn’t perfect. The four Es are expenditure (investment by government and private households, presumably in the form of tuition and gifts); enrollment; engineers; and number of “elite” institutions.

Comparisons of U.S., China and India based on data from BCG's "E4" rating system
Comparisons of U.S., China and India based on data from BCG’s “E4” rating system

The U.S. and U.K. sit atop the rankings thanks to three of the four metrics: “raw spending, their dominance in globally ranked universities and engineering graduation rates.” China and India make the top five due mainly to enrollment.

But I wonder about the validity of that first E, expenditure. For many public institutions, anyway, tuition costs have offset public investment from the states. Rather than raw numbers, it would be interesting to look at public investment as a percentage of GDP or perhaps a per-institution number.

As one of the comments in that WSJ article points out, U.S. education is becoming more stratified. While elite universities may be faring well, others are struggling. In a recent post, I referenced a National Science Board report showing that state per-student funding for public research universities has declined by an average of 20 percent between 2002 and 2010. As states invest less in public universities, our system could look more like those in China and India — where the 99 percent receive “factory-style” and “uninspired” education.

But there will be one difference: The 1 percent of U.S. students may not necessarily be the best and brightest, but the ones who can best afford an “elite” education.

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Author: andrewcareaga

Higher ed PR and marketing guy. Communications director for Missouri University of Science and Technology (Missouri S&T) in Rolla, Missouri, USA. Slow runner, mediocre guitarist, lover of music and puns, and an avid St. Louis Cardinals fan. I blog and Tweet about #highered, #music, #gocards and #random stuff.

2 thoughts on “Global #highered and the 99%”

  1. I joined the Navy and went to electronics schools for two years. When I was done, my college friend taking electronics was on capacitors, which is what we learned in about the first month. There’s a lot to be said for “cranking them out”, if they want to learn. I’m glad I didn’t have to take the extra curricular subjects college would have required.

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