America’s world-beating universities still face significant challenges

The writer is the rector and professor of economics at Sciences Po in Paris

Although the US share of global gross domestic product, and even military spending, is declining, its higher education system remains a world leader, the object of envy and imitation. As in previous years, the recently published Times Higher Education (THE) World University Ranking 2023 confirmed that most of the world’s best universities are located in the US. There are seven US universities in the world’s top 10 and 16 in the top 25. The same picture emerges from other leading rankings.

These rankings reflect an objective reality: the best US universities attract some of the best students and faculty from around the world and produce a significant portion of frontier research. But while many of us look at them covetously from abroad, it is also argued that other criteria should be included.

The modern American research university model that emerged in the second half of the last century is based on competition for faculty, students, and funding sources. The government is a major supporter, but unlike many other countries, public funding for research is allocated competitively and not tied up in excessive bureaucracy.

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However, the system has shortcomings, some related to its own success. First, the high demand for prestigious degrees in the United States causes tuition fees to spiral. The average undergraduate cost of an Ivy League education is $60,000 per year, with an additional $20,000 in living costs (state universities tend to be lower). Oxford and Cambridge, which are regularly in the top three universities in the world, charge UK students less than £10,000 a year (overseas students pay much more, £25,000-£45,000 a year, but still half the US level). that of France great schools they are free.

Even with all the US federal aid and non-government scholarships, high rates mean that America’s top universities help perpetuate inequality of opportunity. There is growing evidence that the American university system contributes to the growing polarization of America, in which economic divisions remain critical. A college degree is a key determinant of future economic success.

Campuses around the world face increasingly prominent cultural differences, but this is true to a greater degree in the US, in some cases threatening the quality of research and teaching. Professors complain about attacks on academic freedom from the left and the right. How many resort to silent self-censorship is anyone’s guess; but a 2021 survey showed that most students agree that “the climate on their campus prevents students from saying what they believe.” A university should be a place to generate new, and sometimes controversial, ideas and to expose citizens in their formative years to different points of view.

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Both issues relate to the third problem: an excessively domestic approach. Paradoxically, while US institutions remain the top destinations for bright students and globally talented teachers, students from their UK and EU competitors are much more international, especially at undergraduate level. Only 15 percent of newly admitted Harvard undergraduates are from abroad, fewer than those from New England. Other Ivy League universities report similar or even lower numbers. By way of comparison, Oxford reports that 23 percent of undergraduates come from abroad, 45 percent if postgraduates are also counted. At Sciences Po, international students make up half of the student body.

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This is a serious disadvantage for American institutions. The world is increasingly interconnected and much more globalized than in the post-war decades when the modern US system emerged. Moreover, the major challenges of our time—climate change, peace, world poverty and migration—are global in nature. To address them, we need leaders and citizens who understand other societies. Exposing the next generation to peers from different cultures should be central to the mission of the best universities.

We need to recognize that these problems exist and look at different ways of measuring the success of institutions, wherever they are. THE is already publishing data on internationalization and recently started publishing ‘impact rankings’ which assess universities against the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, including ‘Reducing Inequalities’. There are no US universities in the top 10 of these rankings. In the recently created country-level index of academic freedom, the US ranks in the bottom 40% of countries.

American universities remain world leaders. But to serve our modern world they can do better, and reformed rankings can help provide the right incentives.


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