TCS Daily

The Fall of America's Universities

By Bill Costello - March 1, 2010 12:00 AM

Since 2004, the world's top 200 universities have been ranked annually by the Times Higher Education-QS World University Rankings. Recently, the U.S. has been losing representation on the list while Asia has been gaining.

In 2008, the U.S. had 37 universities in the top 100 and 58 in the top 200. In 2009, that dropped to 32 and 54, respectively.

Between 2008 and 2009, Japan went from ten universities in the top 200 to eleven, Hong Kong went from four to five, South Korea went from three to four, and mainland China maintained its position with six.

Having visited nearly half of these Asian universities and having seen their large number of research facilities, I am not surprised when I read about Asian nations making enormous investments in their universities.

I am surprised, however, when I read about funding reductions for U.S.universities. For example, the University of California—long regarded as the nation's leading public university—recently suffered an $813 million reduction in state financing. Disinvestment is also happening to universities in Michigan, Washington, Arizona and many other states.

Budgets are being cut from state-supported universities primarily because states are facing budget shortfalls of historic proportions. However, short-sighted state politics like this will lead to long-term consequences.

For example, state budget cuts force universities to raise tuition, cap enrollment, and cut academic programs. These changes result in a smaller number of graduates, which in turn results in a shrinking skilled workforce. The U.S. needs a growing skilled workforce—not a shrinking one—to compete in the global economy.

Currently, the U.S. has the best universities in the world. They attract the best students from around the world. After graduating, these non-U.S.students often stay in the U.S. to work, helping to fuel the nation's innovation and economic growth.

However, when U.S. universities decline in quality and lose their elite status because of budget cuts, bright students from around the world will seek universities in other nations.

The goal of Asian nations is to create world-class universities that surpass U.S. universities. They have "every prospect of success," argued Yale University President Richard C. Levin in a recent lecture, titled "The Rise of Asia's Universities."

Levin also stated that rising Asian nations "all recognize the importance of an educated workforce as a means to economic growth and the impact of research in driving innovation and competitiveness."

Speaking at the inaugural Asian Roundtable of Presidents of Universities of Education, Xu Jialu, director of the College of Chinese Language and Culture at Beijing Normal University, said that China needs to produce massive numbers of innovative people if it is to continue its robust economic growth. He added, "In Chinese education, the development of a creative mindset and abilities among students is urgently needed."

Asian nations are making enormous investments in their universities in order to produce massive numbers of innovative people who can contribute significantly to economic growth.

In the current issue of Foreign Policy, Nobel Prize-winning economist Robert Fogel predicts that China's GDP will reach $123 trillion by 2040 partially because of "the enormous investment China is making in education." He also predicts that the U.S.'s share of global GDP will be roughly one third that of China's.

Without increased investment in universities, the U.S. will no longer have the best universities in the world, will no longer be the world's innovation leader, and will no longer have the world's largest economy.

It's time for the U.S. to increase—not reduce—university funding.

As Benjamin Franklin put it, "An investment in knowledge pays the best dividends."

Bill Costello, M.Ed., is the author of Awaken Your Birdbrain: Using Creativity to Get What You Want. He can be reached at

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