Most of the time, I feel like I see and understand the world of higher education with a certain degree of clarity, and I share whatever insights I have to offer in these Inside Higher Ed essays. Lately, however, I have been unable to write. Instead, I have felt a bit paralyzed. You may have been feeling something similar in your own work.
In my case, this feeling of paralysis, of confusion and lack of agency, is due, I think, to the highly transitional nature of this moment in history. COVID-19 case loads are falling rapidly, and thus an end to the pandemic is in sight. Nevertheless, it seems likely we will not simply return to pre-pandemic business as usual. Though the higher education sector managed to pull through the crisis with the help of massive financial aid from the federal government, hundreds of thousands of faculty and staff members have lost their jobs, some temporarily, some permanently; our education delivery models have been turned upside down as millions of students moved from traditional to online education; and the prospect of a new era in higher education policy, which seemed just around the corner when President Biden was elected, has dwindled as we all encounter once again the realities of divided government in Washington.
All of these changes and uncertainties have left me feeling a bit adrift. What does the future of higher education look like? Where are we headed? What should our priorities be in the coming years? How do we begin this next era feeling grounded and empowered, not lost and bewildered?
For me, the best way to move forward is to begin by taking stock, and as we do this, I want to challenge you to do something that is almost impossible for the higher education community. Just for a moment, put your critical instincts and your passion for change on hold, and reflect on one basic reality: the United States has the best higher education system in the world.
I know what you are thinking. You may immediately want to interpose an objection. Your immediate reaction is probably something like: “Yes, but…!” “Yes, but we have major problems with equity and systemic racism in hiring and student admission!” “Tenure is under assault and academic freedom is dwindling!” “Tuition is too high, and a good education is impossible for ordinary people to afford!” “The student loan crisis is causing massive pain and suffering!” “The humanities are dying!” “Our Title IX procedures have failed!” “College athletics are out of control!” To which I want to respond, just for a moment: “Yes, but…”
For the last decade, Universitas 21, based at the University of Melbourne, has assessed and ranked the world’s higher education systems. The most recent study analyzes twenty-four variables, including funding, research output, employability of graduates, and policy environment. The overwhelming winner, based on these factors, is the United States, with a commanding lead over the other excellent systems in Switzerland, Denmark, Singapore, Sweden, the United Kingdom, and Canada. China, by comparison, comes in at 26. This study confirms what most international assessments have noted for decades: the United States higher education system remains the international gold standard.
What do we make of this assessment? Why do I bring it up? I do so because I think we all need to place our critiques of our higher education system in global perspective. As a community, we are highly committed to critical analysis. We are highly idealistic. We all want to be better. We all ache for reform. And so our rhetoric focusses almost exclusively on our failings and limitations. You can see this most clearly in the books written about higher education today. They all have titles that stress failure and impending disaster. Life of the Mind Interrupted. The Breakdown of Higher Education. The Quiet Crisis. Failing Law Schools. You would never guess from these titles that we have the best college system on the planet.
Yes, we have room for improvement, and yes, we should refuse to be satisfied with our system as it is. Yes, we should all work for change. But I want, just for a moment, to remind you that for all our failings and limitations, we do have the best higher education system in the world. We have better institutions, serve more students, enjoy more academic freedom, provide more societal value, and generate more useful research than any other system. So, even as we voice our demands for reform, let’s not lose sight of an important fact that should ground our discussions: we are number one, and that matters. Our system has problems. But it is also very, very good. When we push for reform, we do so from an already established foundation of excellence.