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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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Employers surveyed last year by the Association of American Colleges and Universities have their doubts, too. Most of the 320 employers with 25 or more employees said they believe workplace complexities would force them to hire only people with four-year degrees – but only 28 percent thought four-year institutions are doing a good job preparing students.

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Above all, they said, they want people who can communicate well orally and in writing, and, second, people who can think critically and analytically.

Against this backdrop, a finding of a 2007 survey by the American Institutes of Research is particularly chilling: "[M]ore than 50 percent of students at 4-year colleges do not score at the proficient level of literacy. This means that they lack the skills to perform complex literacy tasks, such as comparing credit card offers with different interest rates or summarizing the arguments of newspaper editorials." Such results don't bode well for Americans' performance in the global economy – which is increasingly knowledge-based – nor for their performance as citizens of a democracy or their ability to remain at the cutting edge of technology and innovation.

"We have shifted the cost of education from a public good to a private good over the last 20-plus years," says Feller. "We have begun to see higher education as something that benefits individuals – which is true – but we've lost sight of the societal benefit not only of having a population that is better trained and better educated, but also of providing opportunity" so that 18-year-olds don't feel "dead-ended" but know they can use education to retool and create a better life.

Fixing the problems in higher education is going to require taxpayer support, say experts. And that, in turn, requires that the public understand the true costs of what is a very labor-intensive field.

"Tuition in most cases is little more than half the cost," Mr. Carnevale says. The rest comes from state and federal government or the institution and alumni.

To gain public support, institutions will have to provide evidence that education is a worthwhile investment. And, uneasy about the government imposing standardized goals – as President Bush's secretary of Education Margaret Spellings proposed in 2006 – institutions nevertheless appear poised to assess student learning. But they want faculty – not an outside agency – to choose the methods.

Evidence of this shift can be found in the new popularity of capstone projects and academic portfolios as a way to gauge students' skills and knowledge. Another favored new tool is the Collegiate Learning Assessment, administered intermittently over the course of a student's enrollment to gauge progress in such areas as critical thinking, communication, problem solving, and reasoning.

The optimists hope that such changes are part of a revolution: that colleges and universities will become more transparent, politicians will recognize higher education as a pressing social and economic issue, and taxpayers will understand that supporting quality higher education benefits all.

Otherwise, pessimists worry, bright minds with shallow pockets will not get access to the education they need to develop into tomorrow's engineers, inventors, and entrepreneurs; the US will be wasting its most precious resource; and, as Carey puts it, "we will have nowhere to go but down."