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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.

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And as federal stimulus money runs out and the recession lingers, administrators are scouring operational budgets, X-Acto knives in hand. While it makes sense to shut down programs with meager enrollment, it seems suicidal for liberal arts colleges to contemplate axing philosophy departments or for universities to consider boarding up the English, economics, computer sciences, or foreign language departments. Yet all of these and more are on the chopping block.

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This worries even optimists like Richard Ekman, head of the Council of Independent Colleges, which works with more than 500 independent liberal arts colleges. He dismisses dire predictions about the future of liberal arts in an increasingly job-driven climate.

"But if this recession lasts a long time, it will be very hard for the less wealthy institutions to persist," he says. "I also worry that the wealthy institutions, who have had to take in their belts a lot this year ... may be overreacting and doing things they ultimately will regret when times return to some semblance of normality a few years down the road."

He points to the recommendation of a Harvard task force that the university libraries' priority should be access to scholarly material rather than always acquiring it. "You wonder if you give up comprehensive collecting and you happen to be the library of record in so many specialized fields," says Mr. Ekman, "how you ever recover that ground."

Research is also at risk. The economic downturn has forced companies to curtail spending on projects that don't directly affect their bottom line. And while the Obama administration supports research through the National Security Agency, the National Science Foundation, and the Department of Energy, this involves only select fields, leaving other basic research that universities have historically provided in peril. "It has always been the case," says Norman Augustine, retired chairman and CEO of Lockheed Martin, "that the federal government should have a major role in research. Truly basic research that benefits society as a whole should be funded by the government."

As parents sit on folding chairs this spring to watch their sons and daughters, caps askew and gowns a-blowing, reach for their diplomas, they may not want to ask what it is exactly their tuition dollars bought. Because as efficient as the country is at assessing students when they apply to college, there's no coordinated assessment of what knowledge and skills they have acquired by the time they leave.

As a result, the government and employers are increasingly concerned about the education American graduates receive.

Asked by Congress in 2005 what it would take "to ensure the preeminence of America's scientific and technological enterprise," a National Academies of Science committee warned that South Korea, France, China, and Singapore were generating proportionately more students majoring in natural science and engineering. But the committee had no qualms about the quality of education the US was providing.

"We're still the gold standard without question," says Mr. Augustine, who chaired the committee, "but the stature and ability of our higher education system to produce qualified people and produce knowledge is in danger. Whereas five years ago I would have said we don't have to worry about that for the next 30 years, I think today we need to worry a lot. Things can happen quickly."