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How brain drains will save the world

In this era of rising college expectations -- more applications, more students and more university places than ever -- we Americans remain very insular. We think nothing can be better than Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford or some other moldy brick institution high on the U.S. News list. A few adventurous U.S. students are enrolling in Canadian and British schools, but nobody talks about that in the high school cafeteria or the PTA.

Our self-regard is, in some ways, justified. On most international ratings, one of the topics of Ben Wildavsky's intriguing new book "The Great Brain Race: How Global Universities Are Reshaping the World," U.S. colleges still dominate the top 10. But Wildavsky reveals that that will probably change. Students in Europe, Asia, Africa and South America are beginning to speak as knowledgeably about France's Ecole Polytechnique, the Indian Institutes of Technology and Britain's University of Leicester as they do about Columbia and Caltech. Many foreign universities are catching up with ours.

In our comfortable spot at the top of the world's higher ed pyramid, we are ignoring one of the most powerful trends of the 21st century -- a growing free trade in great minds. Wildavsky, a senior fellow in research and policy at the Kauffman Foundation, argues that this will make this era more innovative, and more prosperous, than any that human civilization has seen.

Worrying about rival nations producing more geniuses than we have is no longer useful or realistic, he says. Great ideas, no matter where they originate, spread everywhere. The increasing capability of universities around the world to nurture and develop the best minds is a good story, even if it worries xenophobes.

Wildavsky makes good use of experts such as George Mason University economist Tyler Cowen in his tour of the world's great academic institutions. Wildavsky notes that advocates of expanded international trade extol the benefits to U.S. consumers of imported shoes from Italy or computer chips from Taiwan. Cowen says the products of academic institutions are even more important:

As Wildavsky puts it: " 'New ideas are the real prize,' according to Cowen. For that reason, he is quite unperturbed by the projection that by 2010 China will have more doctorate-holding scientists and engineers than the United States. Why the lack of concern? Because, he writes, 'These professionals are not fundamentally a threat. To the contrary, they are creators, whose ideas are likely to improve the lives of ordinary Americans, not just the business elite.' Noting that economists on the right and left of the political spectrum concur about the importance of new ideas, from biotechnology to cleaner energy, in creating higher living standards, Cowen says trade can enable the kind of access to higher education that will pave the way for innovation."

In the competition for which rising power will provide the best ideas to save us all, I had thought the Indians had an advantage because of their democratic institutions and traditions of free speech. The Chinese, despite their great energy, would be handicapped by their government's distrust of independent thinkers.

Wildavsky suggests I have this quite wrong. The Indians have taken a big leap forward with their famous Indian Institutes of Technology, whose graduates are sought after by high-tech companies. But much of the rest of the Indian university system is sluggish with government hiring regulations and political rules, so students who don't get into one of the ITT's have a problem.

The Chinese universities have proved livelier in more places, and have greatly expanded the number of available university places compared with 30 years ago, when I lived in Beijing. Wildavsky says the 10 million Chinese high school students who took the National College Entrance Exam in 2008 "were all scrambling for just 5.7 million or so seats on the nation's college campuses," but that more than 57 percent chance of earning a slot was much better than a generation ago. Chinese universities are much better equipped now, with professors too young to have been hurt by the Cultural Revolution, when studying science and math was considered counter-revolutionary.

Wildavsky notes that the university entrance tests in China still favor rote learning, but "they do perform an invaluable function -- permitting those with no particular connections or family wherewithal to catapult themselves into the educated classes, and sometimes into the very top institutions."

As Wildavsky argues, American higher education showed the rest of the world the way. We pioneered the idea of a college admissions system based on a meritocracy. The countries that have managed to shed their political, ethnic and cultural preferences for letting only certain kinds of people enroll are being transformed.

If the Great Brain Race is to benefit everyone, however, universities have to be ready to accept academic credentials across national borders. Barriers of language, culture and politics still intrude. The payoff for getting past that problem is huge. Smart countries want to let more smart people in.

Will a day come when American parents will be as thrilled to hear that their child got into Qinghua University as Chinese parents are to learn their child is going to MIT? It could happen. In many ways, science is already uniting us. Great science universities will be part of that trend.

Read Jay's blog every day at http://washingtonpost.com/class-struggle.

Follow all the Post's Education coverage on Twitter, Facebook and our Education web page, http://washingtonpost.com/education.

By Jay Mathews  | June 4, 2010; 5:30 AM ET
Categories:  Trends  | Tags:  Ben Wildavsky, The Great Brain Race, how trade in great minds will help all countries, international universities unknown to Americans, progress needed in letting academic credentials cross borders  
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Comments

Careful Jay, someone's liable to notice your praise of the meritocratic approach to college admissions and conclude that you're a closet racist.

Care to speculate about the effects of "diversity" and affirmative action on the educational value of the American higher education system since you've been incautious enough to praise meritocracy?

Posted by: allenm1 | June 4, 2010 8:29 AM | Report abuse

One other interesting aspect of the "brain race" and the education budget crunch is that the University of California at Berkeley is admitting MANY more foreign students this year because they pay the much higher out of state tuition. Our local Junior Colleges regularly send delegations of administrators on junkets to China and the Far East to "recruit" students for the same reason. Remember that foreign governments (especially China) have radically boosted contributions to universities to gain admission for their students, and didn't the PRC contribute money to the College Board for AP Chinese Language courses? Other than foreign medical schools admitting students who couldn't get into American schools, I don't think this is really a "trend" yet.

Posted by: hotrod3 | June 4, 2010 9:24 AM | Report abuse

for allenm1---I see yr point, and some of the decisions made don't make much sense, but my view is there are more than enough great colleges to serve all of the great kids.

For hotrod3---I am not sure I want to knock letting in foreigners who pay out of state tuition, since Katie Mathews got into a UC law school she greatly desired from the distant semi-foreign enclave of Alexandria Va., and tells me that it won't take her too long to qualify for in-state, thank goodness.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | June 4, 2010 1:52 PM | Report abuse

I'm sorry Jay, you're going to have to explain the field of research in which the University of Leicester is a worldwide beacon for aspirational students. Oxford (Arts) or Cambridge (Sciences), I could understand .... but Leicester ?!?

Posted by: brit_in_canada | June 4, 2010 4:21 PM | Report abuse

Isn't it odd that Jay is all in favor of world universities being meritocratic, when he actively holds that US universities should not be?

Apparently, it's okay when other people do it. But here in the US, he wants to make sure that his kids are eligible for legacies and URMs are eligible for elite schools despite near=illiteracy.

Posted by: Cal_Lanier | June 4, 2010 4:35 PM | Report abuse

for Cal--what have i written that makes me anti-meritocracy? I dont like the SAT because i dont think it is as good a measure of merit as AP or IB, and I would be happy to get rid of legacy admissions, but that is politically difficult and I think trivial because the kids with great scores and grades who dont get into harvard get into places just as good. My focus is not on carving out spaces for minorities in top colleges but for boosting the academic skills of those minorities so they can get in on their merits, and do well and graduate. I spend about 80 percent of my time writing about schools that are trying to do that. Don't I get at least a little credit? I think you are anti-meritocracy for columnists. We work hard, write a lot, do our best, try to be fair and yet are excluded from yr favor because we disagree with you on a few things (even though we agree with you on others.) I am sad now and will have to go sulk some place.

And for brit_in_canada. The favorable review for Leicester I got out of the book. email Wildavsky at bwildavsky@brookings.edu and ask him about that, and let us know what he says.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | June 5, 2010 10:28 AM | Report abuse

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