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US college degrees: Still the best among world's top universities?

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"I don't think the numbers [of foreign students] have gone down substantially," says Robert Berdahl, head of the Association of American Universities, a group of 63 top US and Canadian research universities. "But the fact is – and this was flat-out stated to me by a leading educator in China – 'You used to get our best students; we now keep our best students.' "

retaining dominance in global academic rankings, many experts warn, will provide little solace if US higher education is unaffordable. Already US graduation rates have fallen from second-highest in the world in 1995 to 14th in 2007, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). And recent census results show that only in two states do young adults with college degrees outnumber those without.

"Pretend there was no foreign competition," Mr. Feller suggests. "If you instead look at higher education in the United States in terms of the US's objectives, the US population, and what higher education means for social mobility, diversity, and quality of life, it is scary."

He and others point to the rising cost of tuition.

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