Michael A. MacDowell: US Higher Ed System Remains Envy of the World

by Michael A. MacDowell

The countdown to the presidential election is measured by days now, but the candidates continue to shop their platforms to the electorate. During the televised debates and cross-country campaigning, President Obama and Gov. Romney have both stumped on the importance of a college education and other equally important issues.

Michael A. MacDowell, President, Misericordia University

Both candidates seem to realize that since the early 1950s, American colleges and universities have been considered the envy of the world. The growth of college enrollment after World War II and the decades that followed made the United States an unequaled force in higher education with more institutions and graduating more students than anywhere else in the world.

Our country has also been able to attract foreign students to study and earn their degrees here. They bring with them their intellectual curiosity, tuition, and other income generators to college towns throughout the country. These bright students often remain in the U.S. after graduation, helping to further the economic growth America has achieved over the past half century.

Today, however, America’s leadership position in higher education is being challenged. Other countries have increased the quality and quantity of their K-12th grade schools and, as a result, are sending more of their students to college. As of 2010, there were 67 million students enrolled in primary through postsecondary education in the U.S., while China had 235 million and India had 244 million students. As a result, it is projected that between 2011 and 2020 China will graduate 83 million college students, while India and the U.S. will trail significantly with 54 and 30 million graduates, respectively.

America, though, still holds the lead in the amount of money it spends on education. And we seem to be getting our money’s worth. As a case-in-point, the World Economic Forum estimates that 81 percent of U.S. college engineering graduates are immediately employable, while only 25 percent of India’s graduates and 10 percent of China’s graduates are equally prepared for the workforce.

The U.S. higher education system differs from China’s and India’s in an important way. The postsecondary education system developed in both of these foreign countries rests on a very competitive college admissions process. Both China and India have an intense national testing program which funnels only the brightest students to their relatively few elite institutions. The competition is fierce. Those who get in to good institutions represent less than 5 percent of all high school graduates.

America has chosen a different path. A competitive admissions system for the best institutions remains very much in place, but there are a variety of colleges and universities, ranging from community colleges to larger state-owned and affiliated universities and private institutions, that are open to students. These institutions provide ample opportunity for many to enjoy the value of a college education.

As a result, the benefits of a college education in the U.S. are much broader because a higher percentage of our population holds a college degree. Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce recently produced a report which estimates the median lifetime earnings for an individual with a college degree is 84 percent higher than for non-degreed citizens. The Census Bureau reports that high school graduates earn an average of $40,175 annually while those with a bachelor’s degree earn $71,044. Aside from the personal financial gains associated with a college degree, society, in general, also benefits. College graduates, for example, tend to vote more often, participate in civic affairs on a more regular basis, and are more entrepreneurial. In short, they are the country’s seed corn for future economic growth.

The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania is exemplary in providing college access. Its system of technical education programs, community colleges, state-owned and affiliated colleges and universities, as well as a robust private college and university sector, provides a plethora of opportunities for high school graduates.

As a result, Pennsylvania is one of the country’s biggest net importers of college students from other states and countries. These students support the state’s economy and often remain here after graduation, taking jobs that generate income for them and economic wealth for the state. The diverse and effective postsecondary education in the Commonwealth has enabled it to assume and hold this leadership position in a country that is committed to providing a college education for those who want one.

While sheer numbers are on the side of China and India, the U.S. continues to lead the world in providing an unequaled system for producing tomorrow’s leaders. As college graduates represent the seed corn for tomorrow’s economic growth, Pennsylvanians are fortunate to have a variety of institutions which graduate students who can reason through difficult issues and make good decisions today that will create a better tomorrow.

Michael A. MacDowell is president of Misericordia University in Dallas, Pa., where he occasionally teaches economics.

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