New York – Ross Forman is one of American higher education's best and brightest. He may also be a canary in its coal mine.
Three years ago, he was looking for a university teaching job. He had stellar credentials – an undergraduate degree in history and literature from Harvard and a Stanford doctorate in comparative literature; he'd published in academic journals, coedited an anthology, and organized conferences.
A temporary teaching job in the English department at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., was coming to an end, and he was looking to take the next step in his professorial journey. He sent out applications "mainly in the US," he says, but it was two applications that he sent farther afield that yielded the results: "I got both jobs in Asia: one in Hong Kong and one in Singapore."
Professor Forman is among a growing number of top-notch American academics teaching at the National University of Singapore (NUS) and other institutions in Asia and the Middle East, part of a trend that is helping Asian universities rise in international university rankings and fueling a crisis of confidence in American higher education.
Since World War II, US higher education has been the gold standard. But challenged by increasing foreign competition, rising tuition costs, government cutbacks, flagging graduation rates, and questions about the very quality of the education being delivered, US dominance in academic and research power is now under threat.
The warnings are stark: The US had better focus on its higher education or it is going to lose its technological and scientific edge and risk its economic future. For optimists, every negative news story is a spur to educational reform. For pessimists, each negative report signals the fall of the US in a global marketplace that increasingly prizes knowledge.
"The quality of the US's higher education system has historically been a powerful magnet," says Irwin Feller, who headed the Institute for Policy Research and Evaluation at Pennsylvania State University for 24 years and has served on a number of national committees on education policy. "We have been that sucking sound that has attracted the best and the brightest from around the world."
Growing foreign enrollment would seem to indicate that the US remains the destination of choice. The country has a rich infrastructure of 4,500 public and private postsecondary institutions with a high regard for academic freedom. They range from research universities offering postgraduate degrees to a network of two-year community colleges. Add to this technical and vocational colleges, four-year teaching schools committed to liberal arts, as well as new for-profit institutions, and the US offers the world's most variegated tapestry of higher education.
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.
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.
But is this a threat?
In his book "The Great Brain Race," Ben Wildavsky writes with italic emphasis: "Increasing knowledge is not a zero-sum game. Intellectual gains by one country often benefit others." Indeed, as Yale President Richard Levin told the Royal Society in London in February, the more educated minds there are addressing the shortage of water, the persistence of poverty, the proliferation of nuclear weapons, and other pressing problems, the better off the world will be.
Ms. Blumenthal of IIE agrees, adding that thanks to economic development in Asia and elsewhere, there will be plenty of students to go around.
Demographic data may not paint the whole picture, however.
"I don't think the numbers [of foreign students] have gone down substantially," says Robert Berdahl, head of the Association of American Universities, a group of 63 top US and Canadian research universities. "But the fact is – and this was flat-out stated to me by a leading educator in China – 'You used to get our best students; we now keep our best students.' "
retaining dominance in global academic rankings, many experts warn, will provide little solace if US higher education is unaffordable. Already US graduation rates have fallen from second-highest in the world in 1995 to 14th in 2007, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). And recent census results show that only in two states do young adults with college degrees outnumber those without.
"Pretend there was no foreign competition," Mr. Feller suggests. "If you instead look at higher education in the United States in terms of the US's objectives, the US population, and what higher education means for social mobility, diversity, and quality of life, it is scary."