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A reader writes:


I don’t disagree with your analysis, and I don’t have any information to back me up on this, but I think the one thing that has Americans most concerned about the current state of education in this country is that I suspect our ranking has drastically slipped over the years when compared to other countries. I suspect this has resulted from the competition from other countries, as their students seem to be willing to work harder than ours.

I did have something to say concerning one comment that you made, which was “So, if the American higher education system is the best in the world, then the elementary and secondary system can’t be entirely broken.” I agree, but I have a counterargument, which is based on my own experience at UW and my current view of how I now view the emergence of these nations over the last decade.

The UW engineering graduate school program that I was a part of was highly populated with international students, much more so than my undergrad classes and programs. I cannot give you sound numbers, but I recall very few international students in my undergraduate programs. In my specific graduate school research group, I was the only MS student. One other was a PhD from Korea and the other was on fellowship, and had received his PhD prior to that. He was from Korea as well. My argument is this, while the US higher education system is the best in the world, I think it is in no small part due to the financial resources taxpayers and private industry put into it, but the higher percentage of international students performing much of this research. These students (and professors) are pushing our research institutes and making advances and breakthroughs in technology and engineering. These same students arrive here for graduate schools, but are not represented at all in our primary and secondary education systems. These students fill research positions American students are not interested in. They perform research our students don’t want to pursue, and they ultimately earn degrees that US students could be earning. I think this transfer of knowledge to international students is great. Some students stay in the U.S. to teach, invent, invest and learn more. Some return to their home countries, and help develop their own nations, which I feel has helped these countries emerge.

I just thought I would give you a couple other examples of my thoughts about international education. You may or may not remember that Pang’s mother owns a school in Thailand. The school is first grade through high school with some 400 to 500 students. At that school, students learn 4 or 5 different languages (Thai, English, Chinese, German, and one other I don’t recall). They are taught these languages, the students do not pick a language they want to study for two years and never use again. The school is preparing its students for a integrated life experience of international trade, travel, and business. When she was just here recently, she told me that she was contacted by a family from Korea that wanted to send their daughter to the school. Pang’s mother was going to have to reject this girl because nobody speaks Korean. I thought that was amazing. Now Pang’s mom’s school is one of the best in Thailand and from what I can tell, it is because they have great teachers who instill discipline in their students, something that I think many of our students could use a bit more of.

For more reading on America’s place in the new world, read The World Is Flat by Tom Friedman. It’s a couple of years old, but it’ll give you some insight into how competitive its getting out there.

I haven’t read Friedman’s book, but if I recall correctly, the gist of it is this: For a century, a high school educated person of average intelligence living in Cleveland had better prospects than a genius in Bangalore. That is no longer the case.

Its a premise I basically agree with. But its also a premise that misunderestimates the likelihood that the genius from Bangalore will end up at MIT for graduate school and then in Silicon Valley looking for venture capital.

Either as part of this survey or in another post I plan on spouting off on how and why the United States should place even more emphasis on opening our higher education system to the world. Essentially the argument is that, economically speaking, in a free-trade system a country should specialize on the things it does best. I think that higher education is one of those areas that the United States should be specializing in.

Regarding our secondary education system and your experience at UW, I think you are correct that the presence of so many foreign students in some fields potentially masks a weakness in our secondary system. Whether that weakness actually exists I don’t know, but its an interesting question.

Looking at what the higher education system outputs however I’m not sure there is much reason to worry, even if that weakness exists. Why? Simply because the pre-eminence of our higher education system allows us to use immigrants to fill that void.

Percentage of graduate degrees in science and engineering conferred to foreign students, by degree level and field of study: Academic year ending 1994

Field of study                                   Master's    Doctor's
Total                                     12.0          26.7

Total science and engineering                 31.3          40.9
Natural sciences                             25.4          33.5
Life sciences                             18.0          27.5
Physical sciences                         31.1          35.6
Mathematics                               26.7          48.5
Computer sciences and engineering            33.5          52.3
Computer and information sciences          37.5          44.8
Engineering                               32.1          53.3

The 565,000 international students studying in the United States in 2005-2006 amounted to 3.9 percent of the total student population. (I suspect that’s an inaccurately low estimate however. Assuming, without any real basis, that foreign students are more likely to be attending full time at a four-year university, they potentially comprise up to 5.8 percent of the 9.6 million students at four-year schools.)

In 2000, of all skilled immigrants living within the 30 OECD countries, about half lived in the United States. Remember back in 1992 when Ross Perot made his famous “giant sucking sound” statement about NAFTA? I believe that the leaders of other countries are probably saying the same thing about the United States’ ability to suck up the world’s talent into its universities and then to capitalize on that by getting a large portion of them to stay here.

And that to me is the key. If too many of the foreign students come here to learn and then go home then I would say that there may be an issue. But substantial percentages do end up staying in this country.

“More than a quarter of the engineering and technology companies launched in the U.S. from 1995-2005 had at least one foreign-born founder and Indians founded more immigrant-founded firms – 26 percent – than newcomers from China, Taiwan, the U.K. and Japan combined.” Immigrants founded or were key executives in over half of tech and engineering companies started in Silicon Valley in the last decade.

I guess my point is this. I don’t think we really need to worry too much about whether the engineers and mathematicians are coming from our secondary education system or another country’s so long as enough of them stay here after they graduate. Essentially, I think its as much an immigration policy issue as an education issue.

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