A Matter of Degrees

U.S. universities are still on top, but Asia is rising.
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Gavin Potenza

America’s high schools may be struggling, but its institutions of higher learning remain the destinations of choice for college and postgraduate degree-seekers the world over—for now, at least. In the 2010–11 rankings of the world’s universities by Times Higher Education in London, U.S. schools earned the top five slots (in order): Harvard, Cal Tech, MIT, Stanford, and Princeton. Of the top 20 schools, the United States held 15 slots, the United Kingdom three, and Switzerland and Canada one each.

But American college and university presidents are keeping an eye on up-and-coming competitors in Asia. When The Atlantic recently asked a group of 30 American university and college presidents which countries are, in the next 10 to 20 years, most likely to attract students who would otherwise attend an American university, 24 of them named China. Sixteen named India, 15 said Singapore, 10 said Hong Kong, and nine said South Korea.

Also see:

Poll: "The Future of Education"
The Atlantic asked 30 university and college presidents about tenure, student preparedness, and other hot issues. Here are their responses.

Universities in Asia are attracting more students in both proportional and absolute terms. As one president of a private U.S. research university observed, “China and India … will retain more of their own students because of their investments in higher education, and Singapore [will attract] pan-Asian students from places like Hong Kong and Thailand.” China began investing heavily in higher education in the 1990s, and since then, the number of Chinese high-school graduates going on to college has risen dramatically: from fewer than half in 1995 to three-quarters in 2006. (Only about 70 percent of the American class of 2009 went immediately on to postsecondary schools.) The growth trend holds true for postgraduate degrees as well: in 1996, Chinese universities gave 13 doctoral degrees for every 100 awarded in the United States; 10 years later, they were awarding 80 for every 100 American degrees.

Still, the college and university presidents were sanguine about any immediate threat to the primacy of U.S. higher education. As one noted, “The student flow between the United States and India is 100,000 to 3,000 in favor of the U.S. It will take a while to rebalance that.”

Emily Quanbeck is a researcher at Atlantic Media. For more results from this poll, visit theatlantic.com/collegepresidents.
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Emily Q. Hazzard is an associate editor at WaPo Labs. She was previously an associate producer for Al Jazeera's The Stream and an editorial project associate at The Atlantic.

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