Book Reviews: U.S. Higher Education Seeks Its Way in Global Era

Competition is probably one of humankind’s most primal instincts, but increasing globalization, technological advancement and diversification of the population seem to have kicked the desire to beat out other contenders into overdrive. Each of the books highlighted in this article addresses some aspect of these converging trends:

The Race Between Education and Technology, by Claudia Goldin and Lawrence F. Katz, $19.95, Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, March 2010, ISBN-10: 0674035305, ISBN-13: 978-0674035300, pp. 496.

Mass education is what set the United States apart from all other nations starting in the 19th Century and extending through much of the 20th century, as the authors explain in this award-winning book. Rather than educating only the elite who could pay for it, America educated more people for more years at no charge. As the U.S. turned out even more educated people than needed to meet the demands of technology, its wages, productivity and income equality increased, according to Drs. Goldin and Katz, both Harvard University economics professors. Gains from this expanding economic growth became more or less equally distributed across society.

In the last couple of decades of the 20th Century, the country began losing what it cast as the race between education and technology. In the meantime, other countries had begun educating more of their own people. Students of some nations began exceeding U.S. high school and college graduation rates, as well as outscoring American students on standardized exams.

“Rising inequality, lagging productivity for a prolonged period, and a rather non-stellar educational report card have led many to question the qualities that once made America the envy of all and a beacon for the world’s people,” the authors write.

As they note, “the supply of educated Americans slowed considerably” after 1980. Technology raced ahead of educational gains in the United States. The authors expand on the reasons for these gaps, analyze trends in education and economics that are at the root of the problem and examine some solutions. As the bottom line, to fix the problems and regain our competitive edge in the world, the authors suggest that the U.S. re-examine assumptions about education and turn out more people with analytical, direct-service and interpersonal skills that future jobs are likely to require.

The Great Brain Race: How Global Universities Are Reshaping the World, by Ben Wildavsky, $26.95, Princeton University Press; April 2010, ISBN-10: 0691146896, ISBN-13: 978-0691146898, pp. 248.

Colleges and universities are in a race for dominance on the global stage, argues the author. Not only are more students studying abroad, but more professors are teaching in countries other than their own. Meanwhile, colleges are opening branches across the globe, and many nations are pushing to build excellent research universities of their own or expanding existing ones. Private industry is getting into the picture by opening for-profit and online colleges for the global student audience. As the options grow, so does the desire to rank the offerings, as U.S. News and World Report does of U.S. schools, spawning more competition and creating an industry of its own.

While some educators view these trends with trepidation, the author, a former education editor for U.S. News, now affiliated with the Kauffman Foundation and the Brookings Institution, sees this interplay of culture and knowledge as a positive trend.

“Taken together, these developments reflect the rise of a new kind of free trade: free trade in minds …” he writes. “In this worldwide marketplace, more and more people will have the chance, slowly but surely, to advance based on what they know rather than who they are.”

Mentoring and Diversity: Tips for Students and Professionals for Developing and Maintaining a Diverse Scientific Community (Mentoring in Academia and Industry), by Thomas Landefeld, $32.95, Springer; October 2009, ISBN-10: 1441907777, ISBN-13: 978-1441907776, pp. 105.

In an era when all the best minds will be needed to keep the nation competitive and to make breakthroughs for humankind, every potential innovator is a valuable resource. However, underrepresentation of certain ethnic minorities in the sciences could hinder progress.

“Without the inclusion of those individuals from ethnic backgrounds who have been heretofore excluded, or only included minimally, the future of not only the scientific community but society, in general, is at risk,” Dr. Landefeld writes.

Too often, however, these students from ethnic or racial minorities drop out of the pipeline. One reason, Landefeld argues, is that underrepresented groups often have less access to mentors in the sciences. This book examines how those who desire mentors and those who wish to mentor them can breach the divide.