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

A US college degree has been the gold standard. But global economics and a crisis of confidence may be pushing the US down in rankings among top universities.

By Lee Lawrence/ Correspondent / June 2, 2010

Biosciences Prof. Alison Wallace works with prospective elementary school teachers at a Minnesota State University lab. She and other faculty members are participating in a pilot project of consultation with employers about what skills college degrees should include for employment. The consultation is part of US higher education's overall self-examination as it slips in rankings of top universities.

Chris Franz/Special to The Christian Science Monitor

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New York

Ross Forman is one of American higher education's best and brightest. He may also be a canary in its coal mine.

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Three years ago, he was looking for a university teaching job. He had stellar credentials – an undergraduate degree in history and literature from Harvard and a Stanford doctorate in comparative literature; he'd published in academic journals, coedited an anthology, and organized conferences.

A temporary teaching job in the English department at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., was coming to an end, and he was looking to take the next step in his professorial journey. He sent out applications "mainly in the US," he says, but it was two applications that he sent farther afield that yielded the results: "I got both jobs in Asia: one in Hong Kong and one in Singapore."

Professor Forman is among a growing number of top-notch American academics teaching at the National University of Singapore (NUS) and other institutions in Asia and the Middle East, part of a trend that is helping Asian universities rise in international university rankings and fueling a crisis of confidence in American higher education.

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.