This article answers the question, is the United States facing a crisis in the education sector specifically in the sciences, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM)? The article then concludes by looking at a few policy propositions and their implications. First, the paper highlights the crisis’s background while premising on updated academic sources. There is no doubt of the existence of the crisis but the seriousness of the crisis is what the paper dwells on. There may be varied opinions on the seriousness of the crisis; however, the common conclusion is that, American colleges and universities are weathering in this crisis and their strength is being sapped. These very institutions must come out of the crisis stronger than ever before (Graves, 2010).
Leaders in the education sector have been on the forefront in providing advice on educational matters in helping learning institutions that they serve to deliver ‘quality for humanity.’ During the past two centuries, however, quality for humanity has only been in the form of research, invention and innovation, and interdisciplinary interactions to the point that everyone and everything now seems to be connected to each other in abstraction. This has resulted to complexities of global intermingling; the economy, the environment, and social equity are loosely intertwined-with a weak balance between sustainability and crisis. Education is known to create intellectual capital and to sustain it. This is very important to the modern world, it is a prudent investment! In the lifelong education process, intellectual capital appreciates in value at all stages.
In the contemporary geopolitical context, the importance of education (higher education) has greatly increased; in fact, it has become a priority, as cited recently by a UNESCO communiqué (UNESCO 2009). David Brooks, a columnist in the United States, with the New York Times has analyzed current research on education to explain why the US’s historical (more than three decades) advantage over most of Europe in terms of educational achievement, which helped in accelerating productivity and growth, has and is seriously deteriorating. There is an observable evidence of diminished skills, this is by far the biggest crisis facing America today (Brooks 2008; Goldin & Katz 2008). Core learning results of the education system in the country have not been at par with the specific educational needs of an economy that rides on the wheels of science and technology which in turn pledge their allegiance to cutting edge research carried out in institutions education. Virtually all countries are indeed competing for a socioeconomic position in this new form of race, a brains race. This is done purposely to ensure that suitable competitive intellectual positioning in the world economy is attained and to safeguard perpetual social and economic sustainability. This is why the demand for quality education is increasing daily (Wildavsky, 2010).
The Brains race
The brains race is universal and independent of geopolitical orientation in the modern world (Wildavsky, 2010). In his book, ‘the great Brains race’, Ben Wildavsky critically analyses America’s higher education as a supranational construct. Global competition for the best brains is intensifying and is in turn transforming the world’s perspective on intellectual capital. This revolution should be viewed positively. Annually, more than three million students pursue various courses outside their home countries; this is a more than 40 percent increase as compared to 1999 statistics. Recently built or expanded colleges and universities in India, China and the United Arab Emirates are giving the likes of Harvard, Cambridge and Oxford a run for their money, and students. The newly established faculties are displaying their research preeminence. Western universities are increasingly setting up satellite campuses right from the U.A.E to South Africa. International universities are working hard to become world class, this means that, the world’s education marketplace is raining with opportunities than never before (Graves, 2010).
Chronicling higher education data as reported in the United States, Europe, India, China and the Middle East, there is an unprecedented supranational transfer of both students and faculties. There is an increased growth of satellite campuses, universities have literally turned to profit making entities, and international college rankings have intensified. This is seen as a threat by some governments, as academic competition is continuously increasing. However, the new internal scholar marketplace is meritocratic in nature; the dispersion of knowledge is beneficial to everyone, economically and educationally speaking (Wildavsky, 2010).
However, the brains race doubtfully involves a few academic institutions. The brains race may least affect well established academic institutions as compared to those that are upcoming. But the fact remains, the brains race affects all, both big and small. Education is provided by all, quality education is provided by a few. In the U.S, for example, only a few private and public academic institutions have well established education kitties, their main sources are from the private sector and endowments. These institutions can be termed as being ‘well endowed’ in terms of capacity and finance. It is not a surprise that they are the top-tier institutions renowned for their research and they have academically well accomplished students who are attracted and nurtured by them. Such institutions are prestigious brands and their steady state productive practices may remain untouched by the so called brains race. On the contrary, the other institutions which have reputations of falling and rising with their reaction to accountability from the public policy are the real participants in the brains race (Graves, 2010).
How the U.S compares to the world
Global competition in education has hit overdrive. This has pushed policy-makers to project workforce proportions basing on tertiary credentials that are required for competitiveness. The analysts’ projections are modeled to reflect statistics of labor and workforce; however, these projections are always subjective to global trends. Analyzing data from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) reveals that, the U.S is trailing several other nations, it is ranked 10th in terms of the percentage of adults of ages 25 to 34 who have received tertiary education. This is utterly unacceptable position for the U.S. in terms of education policy. These statistics have ignited a swift reaction. For example, the Lumina Foundation’s has crafted its “big goal” of increasing the percentage of Americans with high-quality, college education (two- or four-year) from the current level of 39 percent to about 60 percent by 2025, this is an increase of 23 million graduates. In another report dubbed, “Coming to Our Senses: Education and the American Future”, prepared by the commission of education leaders and sponsored by the College Board, more than 55 percent of young Americans (ages 25–34) should be completing their higher education, with a college degree or higher (Kirwan 2008). President Obama’s goal is the most ambitious, to raise the current 39 percent of tertiary qualification (for ages25–64) to 60 percent by 2020. Assuming a steady-state proportion of adults in the United States (age group 25–64), to attain a 60 percent tertiary education credential holders will require an annual growth rate of 3 percent for 15 years and 5 percent for 10 years compounded annually. The question that arises is whether such ambitious targets can be attained. The implications of this question are not only aimed at enhancing the current credential rates but also for solving the problem of limiting entries to higher tertiary education through high school dropouts (Aldeman and Cary 2008).
In terms of teachers pay, the U.S has been reported to be losing ground recently. The ability to provide quality education for the American child lies in the ability to attract and retain quality teachers; this should be an issue of top priority. Compared to South Korea and Germany with average salaries of about 141 percent of per capita GDP, the United States stands at 81 percent. Most countries (OECD countries) in a survey conducted by McKinsey and Co. seemed to be paying their teachers significantly higher starting salaries as compared to the U.S. In addition, students in countries with higher salaries for their teachers were also observed to be doing relatively well as their U.S counterparts in mathematics and sciences tests. The survey continues to argue that, good starting salaries are a prerequisite for getting the right people in the teaching profession. Teaching salaries should be commensurate with those of other professions (EPI, 2008).
A closer look at the STEM crisis
America has been a global leader in terms of its contribution to research and technology through its pool of scientists and engineers. Recently, the American share of ‘superior’ papers that are published in peer-reviewed articles and journals fell to 58 percent in 2003 from 63 percent in 1998. It is estimated that only four percent of college graduates in America major in
Engineering; as compared to about “13 percent in Europe, and 20 percent in Asia” (Weiler, 2010, p. 8). Another recent study has revealed a strong association between the fall in scientific publications by American researchers and lethargic growth in government’s allocations to public research. Another shocking report on the negative impacts of America’s diminishing scientific strength titled “Rising Above the Gathering Storm” in 2005 stirred several reactions of which some led to the enactment of the “America Competes Act” of 2007 (Committee on Science and Technology, 2007). This Act mandates the stated to double their spending on research especially in the natural sciences. However, the main problem of this Act is that there is no clear provision by Congress on the sources of funding needed to implement the program (The National Academies, 2006).
On the other hand, Europe’s efforts towards the repatriation of scientific talents that it had previously lost to the United States have been increasing daily. Significant investments have made at national levels as well as regionally for the EU. For example, Germany in her effort to increase its capacity of competitive research capacity; has launched an “Excellence Initiative” which in its initial phase highlighted about nine elite universities. The second phase has been already been launched and is a case in point. The impact of such a plan may seem rather modest. A three year funding of German’s Excellence Initiative (at about $2.6 billion) is far much below one annual budget of Stanford University ($3.67 billion). Further assessment of Europe’s efforts of towards STEM learning is that of the British government. The British government decided cut funding for its universities by about $877 million from the total allocation of $11.3 billion; this is about 8% (The Chronicle of Higher Education, 2010). More critical for this analysis is the medium term and long term impact of the competition from Asia, specifically from China and India. In these billion people countries; the efforts towards the expansion and improvement of their higher education systems and research are phenomenal. Adding the tremendous reservoirs of intellectual capital to these efforts, it is even easier to see how this growth is resulting to serious competition on an international level. Asia is emerging much faster from the global economic crisis than the rest of the world, say Europe or the United States. In a recent conference of leaders in higher education hosted in London, a prominent Australian scholar predicted that the longstanding global dominance in higher education by the “Anglo-American universities” is coming to an end. It’s obvious that the sunshine is rising from the East. The Chronicle of Higher Education, one of the main sources of information on higher education in United States, documented a special report in October 2009 entitled “America Falling, Asia Rising”. This magazine clearly documented the magnificent tempo with which Asian countries, specifically China, were increasingly expanding their higher education systems while the US was is struggling under different kinds of cutbacks and deficits (The Chronicle of Higher Education, 2009).
Since the beginning of the 21st century, external pressures on the education sector in the United States have been clearly expressed in mainly in terms of; affordability, accessibility, and accountability (Aldeman ; Cary 2008). Looking at the United States education system from a policy analyst’s perspective, it is imminent that institutions that are winning the brains race will able to significantly account for improved and comparatively affordable education. This will be through the redesigning of the learning processes and their opportunities as in; improved rates of credentialing, increased access and convenience due to greater capacity, decreased academic expenditures, and enhanced accountability. These successes are counter-intuitive considering the current education ‘business model’ and culture that are based on FTEs and credit hours. For example, instructor-to-student ratio is considered as a reliable and direct proxy for measuring credit and FTE expenditures. However, they are unreliable measures of academic outcomes as characteristically assumed by educators (Graves, 2010).
Ideally, FTEs are inputs and not outputs. Thus, positive educational outcomes should not proceed from healthy revenues, the converse is true. American education leaders (and even the rest of the world) need to redo their policies to strategically position themselves to leading and managing by health educational results, as compared to the conventional input strategies and the revenues that proceed form such investments. Government agencies beside their provision of fiduciary oversight need to think out of the box. They need to be strategic when advising and accepting the implementation of complex policies involving academic financing and restructuring. The question of whether there should be an alignment between efficiency of academic policies and the obligatory mission of the academic institutions. After all “following the smell money” by blindfolded academic institutions has often led to uncontrolled teaching and learning expenditures. These are very sensitive issues for American educators and, political leaders and boards who now need to urgently guide the institutions toward full embracing of the mission albeit the financial realities. Another issue is the capacity of delivery of tertiary institutions, especially in areas of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). The good news about the superior importance of intellectual capital has also increased tension and volatility in terms of policy choice and implementation. Contemplation on policy position such as; the brains race is far too important to be solely left in the hands of educators, the impact of the public on the education enterprise are more unraveling in detail or, wisecracks, in the dire need for more of them (Drew, 2009).
The problem of the United States education system is its delicately balanced model which is readily disturbed by the current crisis. It’s fine for bigger players such as Harvard to survive the crisis without improving its infrastructure, but in general the crisis is pretty bad for the American society. If hundreds of thousands of high school graduates are not able to enter into higher education for one reason or another say, their local community college is short of finance and capacity, then this is the root of the problem. The American education model has been reputed as on having well established private and public universities, and on having both elite institutions and a wide open access gate for high school graduates; if the academic reputation of places like Berkeley is severely threatened by a dramatic curtailment of resources, and if at the same time community colleges can no longer absorb the demand of young people for entry into higher education, then the system as a whole suffers. And I am presumptuous enough to claim that, if the American model of higher education does not live up to its fullest potential, the world of higher education as a whole is bound to suffer.
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