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.
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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.Skip to next paragraph
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Even though the economic downturn is expected to affect foreign enrollment in September, international applications to graduate programs are up by 7 percent, says Peggy Blumenthal, vice president for educational services at the Institute of International Education (IIE) in New York.
International students may account for less than 4 percent of all enrollment, but their contribution to the US is disproportionately large. In 2009-10 they contributed $18 billion to the economy, according to estimates by the National Association of International Educators. That's the equivalent of 60 percent of US Department of Education spending on higher education in 2008, and a little more than it spent on student financial aid.
More significant still is foreign students' contribution to technological innovation and sciences: Close to 70 percent of all engineering PhDs granted in 2006 went to foreign-born students, as did more than half the doctoral degrees in the physical sciences, reports the National Science Foundation.
This means that most of the brainy heads in educational institutions bent over lab equipment, designing complex computer programs, or teaching undergraduates came to the US from abroad.
Nor does their impact end when they don cap and gown: Foreign-born entrepreneurs founded or cofounded more than half the engineering and technology companies that sprouted in Silicon Valley between 1995 and 2005, according to a Duke University report. Nationwide, they were sole founders or key partners in a quarter of these kinds of companies, producing $52 billion in sales and employing 450,000 workers in 2005.
As billions of dollars are invested in Asia and the Middle East to create world-class seats of learning and stanch the brain drain, there is a conscious effort to emulate the US model.
But imitation, some worry, may be the direst form of flattery.
That's why the likes of Professor Forman moving overseas causes hand-wringing.
Indeed, many of the world's best students increasingly have the option of getting a top-notch education closer to home by enrolling in such institutions as China's Tsinghua University in Beijing, the Indian Institute of Technology in Chennai (Madras), or the University of Tokyo. They can also choose from American-style institutions. As in Singapore, South Korea's Seoul National University and Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) – two prominent examples – have US-trained PhDs in their administrations, excel in the sciences, nurture the humanities, and actively recruit American and American-trained faculty.