Will America’s universities go the way of its car companies?

Declining-UniversitiesFifty years ago, in the glorious age of three-martini lunches and all-smoking offices, America’s car companies were universally admired. Everybody wanted to know the secrets of their success. How did they churn out dazzling new models every year? How did they manage so many people so successfully (General Motors was then the biggest private-sector employer in the world)? And how did they keep their customers so happy?

Today the world is equally in awe of American universities. They dominate global rankings: on the Shanghai Ranking Consultancy’s list of the world’s best universities, 17 of the top 20 are American, and 35 of the top 50. They employ 70% of living Nobel prizewinners in science and economics and produce a disproportionate share of the world’s most-cited articles in academic journals. Everyone wants to know their secret recipe.

Which raises a mischievous question. Could America’s universities go the way of its car companies? On the face of it, this seems highly unlikely. Student enrolments are higher than ever this year, as Americans who cannot find jobs linger or return to education. Cambridge, Massachusetts, shows no outward sign of becoming Detroit. Yet there are serious questions about America’s ivory towers.

Two right-wing think-tanks, the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) and the Goldwater Institute, have both produced damning reports about America’s university system. Two left-wing academics, Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus, have published an even more damning book: “Higher Education? How Colleges are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids and What We Can Do About It”. And US News & World Report, a centrist magazine, says in its annual survey of American colleges that: “If colleges were businesses, they would be ripe for hostile takeovers, complete with serious cost-cutting and painful reorganisations.”

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Source: The Economist
Photo: Brett Ryder | The Economist