He and others point to the rising cost of tuition.
"We are caught in a price spiral that is a good 30 years old now," says Kevin Carey, policy director at the Education Sector, a nonpartisan education policy think tank in Washington. US tuition costs outstrip by a wide margin those in Western Europe, Japan, Australia, and New Zealand, according to recent OECD figures. And while tuition rates for Singapore's prestigious NUS are as high as those at the best Ivy League schools, students have access to grants of up to 80 percent of the cost. KAUST in Saudi Arabia offers students free tuition, housing, medical care, and travel.
"I think it's important to define accessibility properly," says Mr. Carey, who nonetheless believes anyone bent on going to college in the US can.
This is where the rich tapestry of educational choices comes in: Tuitions at four-year private US institutions may average $26,273, but public colleges and universities charge in-state students an average of $7,020. At community colleges, it is $2,500.
But tuition is not the whole story. Add room and board, transportation, books, fees, and supplies, and a year at community college can cost $14,000.
"Students try to work while going to college or they try to go part time to spread it out," Carey says. "And working and part-time attendance are high risk factors for not finishing a degree."
To reverse this trend, President Obama increased federal funding for Pell Grants to a maximum of $5,550 per recipient. While it's welcome, many fear it is but a drop in the bucket. Students are having to borrow more than ever, according to Carey, whose think tank tracks growing loan default rates.
This has implications for society as a whole because there is a strong correlation between people's ability to get a postsecondary education and the wages they earn. Even though the federal government says that eight of the 10 fastest-growing US job categories don't require a bachelor's degree, the "college wage premium" – the difference in average salaries of a college and a high school graduate – is 70 percent. That makes access to higher education "the major reason for the widening of income distribution," says Tony Carnevale of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. "In a sense, this is a social policy question. It hasn't been widely recognized as such, but it really is. You've got the segregation of kids from lower-income families, working-class families, minority kids in the two-year system getting stronger every year."
The economy, too, plays a part in the educational deficit. At least 39 states have cut assistance to public colleges and universities, and private institutions have seen returns on endowments fall 19 percent on average, the worst return since 1974. Across the country, many institutions have frozen salaries, imposed furloughs, trimmed campus services, and, in some cases, raised tuitions. These kinds of measures sent students into the streets in California earlier this year when they learned of a 32 percent undergraduate tuition hike in the University of California system. These kinds of measures also make top faculty look more keenly at offers from institutions abroad, which lure them with new labs, light teaching loads, and steady salaries.
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.
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.