"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.
"We are caught in a price spiral that is a good 30 years old now," says Kevin Carey, policy director at the Education Sector, a nonpartisan education policy think tank in Washington. US tuition costs outstrip by a wide margin those in Western Europe, Japan, Australia, and New Zealand, according to recent OECD figures. And while tuition rates for Singapore's prestigious NUS are as high as those at the best Ivy League schools, students have access to grants of up to 80 percent of the cost. KAUST in Saudi Arabia offers students free tuition, housing, medical care, and travel.
"I think it's important to define accessibility properly," says Mr. Carey, who nonetheless believes anyone bent on going to college in the US can.
This is where the rich tapestry of educational choices comes in: Tuitions at four-year private US institutions may average $26,273, but public colleges and universities charge in-state students an average of $7,020. At community colleges, it is $2,500.
But tuition is not the whole story. Add room and board, transportation, books, fees, and supplies, and a year at community college can cost $14,000.