Universities: towards a decline of the American empire?


Described in turn as a tragedy, a counterrevolution, and the collapse of democracy, the recent occupation of the Capitol by supporters of Donald Trump in reaction to the results of the presidential elections has been seen as the revealing of an older malaise and deep.

World public opinion seems to be discovering the definitive break between the enlightened, cosmopolitan and globalized elites on the one hand, and the reactionary middle and popular classes on the other: the bright side and the dark side of America.

Populisms, the media, the capitalist economy and neoliberalism have been held responsible in turn. What if the roots of the divide were also to be found in the education system?

The era of “rankings”

Let’s take a step back. Taking advantage of the globalization of the means of communication and information, some American universities, more particularly the eight prestigious private research establishments of the Northeast, known as the Ivy League , have gradually established themselves in the country and in the ‘international.

In the United States, they have distanced themselves from those which were once the great public state universities (California-Berkeley or Michigan) in the capacity to attract and recruit the best professors, a fundamental asset to ensure the excellence of their scientific production and its success. valuation.

Internationally, with the advent in 2003 of “rankings”, these various systems which compare and rank universities from one country to another, the United States not only invariably occupied the first places but they were set up as a model. for all the others.

From South Korea to China, from Chile to France, the public authorities have constantly encouraged their universities to follow the standards defined by this very small part of American higher education: competition, primacy of research on training, differentiation of tuition fees, growing role of philanthropy in funding, performance indicators, to name a few.

Beyond their multiplicity and great diversity, American institutions have succeeded in attracting a substantial portion of global student mobility over the long term. In a market dominated by English-speaking countries, the United States holds the first place in terms of the number of international students welcomed, far ahead of the United Kingdom, Australia and Canada, namely 18% of the global workforce, 22% of mobility comes from the OECD area and, more importantly, 26% of the total number of doctoral students in international mobility.

The turning point of the pandemic?

Admittedly, the country was, like the others, affected by the crisis linked to the Covid-19 pandemic. In 2020, the total number of foreign students enrolled in its universities, including online from home, decreased by 16%. In one year, according to the IIE agency, new registrations of international students have fallen by 43% .

The economic downturn is spectacular, but a downward trend in inbound international mobility had already been observed since 2017, long before the outbreak of the health crisis. The data published in the annual Open Doors report show a continuous decrease , ranging from 0.9% to 6.6% per year, depending on the level and type of mobility (diploma or not).

The management of the pandemic has added an additional difficulty to international candidates who already faced many, since the arrival of Donald Trump for the presidency, with travel bans, discriminatory decrees and official rhetoric often xenophobic on the part of of the American administration.

The decline in international mobility is undoubtedly a fundamental trend that is slowly but surely taking hold in the global higher education landscape. However, other indicators alert us to the situation of American universities.

Because international students are not the only ones showing signs of disaffection. Increasing uninterrupted since the end of the Second World War with the creation of assistance programs from the federal government, the rate of access to higher education for young Americans has experienced a significant decline since 2008, with an annual rate of -2 , 6% .

In fall 2020, U.S. higher education enrolled approximately 400,000 fewer students compared to the previous year. Among the causes often cited, debt related to the student loan system and tuition inflation seems to be the most likely.

The decline is unevenly distributed. It hits community colleges more, which often form the largest proportion of traditionally under-represented students: ethnic minorities and low-income backgrounds.

Social inequalities

It is therefore the most vulnerable students who are enrolling less and less in university. Enrollment in for-profit institutions, on the other hand, is doing well, becoming, with an increase of more than 5%, the only component of higher education to benefit from an increase in enrollments, all cycles combined.

The composition of the American student body had evolved since the 1970s towards a greater representation of non-traditional age students, ethnic minorities, veterans and women, notably through the opening of elite single-sex institutions. Moreover, the discourse in favor of more inclusive campuses has never been so widespread and high profile .

Yet the registration statistics send worrying signals. According to the progressive think tank Center for American Progress, the drop in enrollment over the past decade is more significant for certain groups, notably blacks and especially, among whites, students of rural origin.

Similarly, the dropout rate during the first cycle of higher education has continued to increase for 30 years, also unevenly: in 2017, the dropout rate was over 60% in community colleges against 40% in universities.

More generally, the American university provides training for a percentage of a slightly lower age group but comparable to the average for countries in the OECD area. According to the National Center for Education Statistics ( NCES ), 25% of young people aged 20 to 29 were enrolled in tertiary education in the United States compared to 28% on average in the OECD area and 40% or more in countries such as Denmark, Australia or Finland.

A dysfunctional system?

Inequalities of access seem set to increase, especially for American students, more and more likely not to enroll in higher education, to drop out and not to continue beyond the first cycle.

The international notoriety of research universities hides another less well-known reality, which is the drop in the number of American candidates in doctoral programs, today trusted by students from China, India or other foreign countries.

In 2015, around 55% of doctoral students in mathematics, computer science and engineering were foreigners. The share of non-American doctoral students was 16% in humanities, 18% in management, but 64% in computer sciences.

The explanation frequently given by institutions is the high employability of young American graduates who do not need a master’s or a doctorate. For some students, however, the price of further education is simply too high when they have already accumulated a large debt to fund the undergraduate level.

So when Columbia University professor Andrew Delbanco recalls that “in the long run, the only force that can save democracy is educated citizenship – the citizens, who know enough to resist the kind of lies and hidden incentives by the current president and his supporters ”, he only warns about the current limits of his system.

His call for a revival of the study of the humanities – victims of the economic crisis and the budget cuts induced in many universities – amounts to wondering if the American university continues to fulfill its original and essential function, which is to prepare young people to become enlightened citizens and thus enable the exercise of democracy.

Many American political scientists had already identified the correlation between Trump’s “white” electorate and the degrees obtained, explaining that the low level of education could correspond to fragile and precarious economic situations, to lower incomes and to a sentiment. of social downgrading. These analyzes seem more convincing today than ever.

Author Bio: Alessia Lefebure is Director of Studies, Sociologist of Organizations at the School of Advanced Studies in Public Health (EHESP)