If the 2012 election campaign has plunged you into depression and convinced you that this country is going down the drain, an antidote could be a tour of a college or university campus. Wherever you may live, you’ll probably find a handful within a driving distance from your home.
The American higher education system is unique. Nothing on the same scale or quality exists elsewhere in the world, and it provides an enormous competitive advantage for U.S. businesses and the military. American universities also award degrees to foreign students, training Indian engineers, European business executives, Chinese scientists and Jamaican athletes. Far from eroding its competitive edge, this openness only solidifies America’s leadership position, helping spread its system of values around the world.
American universities are the best in the world. There are some 2,500 accredited four-year colleges and universities, awarding over a million and a half bachelor’s degrees each year. The number of master’s degrees, according to the Council of Graduate Schools, stands around half a million and the number of doctorates exceeds 50,000 annually.
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According to Times University Rankings, a U.K. firm, half of the world’s 100 best colleges and universities, and 30 of the top 50, are located in the U.S. The United States dominates higher education well in excess of its relative weight in the global economy, since it produces only around a quarter of the world’s GDP.
Nor is it the case that the American educational system is heavily geared toward the opulent, or that expensive private colleges provide superior education. In the same ranking, 23 of the world’s best institutions of higher learning are U.S. state schools, offering affordable education to in-state students. The average cost of tuition, room and board at state universities is less than half the average of Ivy League schools. For example, 13 graduates of the University of Wisconsin have won the Nobel Prize, while 12 Nobel laureates teach at the University of Michigan.
Thanks to state schools, the U.S. remains a land of opportunity: Some 70,000 students are enrolled at the University of Arizona, while in the large state universities of Minnesota, Texas, Florida and Ohio enrollment exceeds 50,000.
Universities, and the pioneering research they do, are the foundation of modern entrepreneurial capitalism. Silicon Valley came into existence half a century ago around Stanford University, when Frederick Terman, the provost at a previously sleepy private school, expanded its engineering and science departments with an eye to conducting research that could have commercial applications. A small community of venture capitalists then coalesced around Stanford, starting with William Henry Draper III, who founded the first West Coast venture fund in 1959.
The early venture funds were behind some of the most successful modern businesses that became household names and transformed the world while making investors trillions of dollars. Even more important, they created a model for entrepreneurial capitalism that has been replicated around dozens of colleges and universities, in Austin, outside Boston, in the Raleigh-Durham area and elsewhere. Specialized industry spinoffs transformed San Diego into a global biotech hub and helped revitalize moribund rust belt cities.
Over the past three decades, American college degrees have been in high demand. The number of international students studying in the U.S. has grown dramatically in recent years, reaching an all time high of nearly 700,000 in the 2011-12 academic year. The growth of foreign enrollment is indicative, since international students typically pay full tuition, either from their own pockets or getting scholarships from their governments. In any case, more than domestic enrollment, it provides a measure of the supply/demand relationship.