Since World War II, US higher education has been the gold standard. But challenged by increasing foreign competition, rising tuition costs, government cutbacks, flagging graduation rates, and questions about the very quality of the education being delivered, US dominance in academic and research power is now under threat.
The warnings are stark: The US had better focus on its higher education or it is going to lose its technological and scientific edge and risk its economic future. For optimists, every negative news story is a spur to educational reform. For pessimists, each negative report signals the fall of the US in a global marketplace that increasingly prizes knowledge.
"The quality of the US's higher education system has historically been a powerful magnet," says Irwin Feller, who headed the Institute for Policy Research and Evaluation at Pennsylvania State University for 24 years and has served on a number of national committees on education policy. "We have been that sucking sound that has attracted the best and the brightest from around the world."
Growing foreign enrollment would seem to indicate that the US remains the destination of choice. The country has a rich infrastructure of 4,500 public and private postsecondary institutions with a high regard for academic freedom. They range from research universities offering postgraduate degrees to a network of two-year community colleges. Add to this technical and vocational colleges, four-year teaching schools committed to liberal arts, as well as new for-profit institutions, and the US offers the world's most variegated tapestry of higher education.
This variety is a chief attraction for foreign students. Even when their numbers fell in the four years following 9/11 – due to visa restrictions and global uncertainty – the largest year-to-year dip was only 2.4 percent. And foreign enrollment since has risen steadily to more than 670,000 in 2008-09 – more than 20 percent higher than 2000-01.