Higher Education in the USA.
Finishing school is the beginning of an independent life for millions of school graduates. Many roads are open before them. But it is not an easy thing to choose a profession out of more than the 2000 existing in the world.
Out of the more than three million students who graduate from high school each year, about one million go on for “higher education”. Simply by being admitted into one of the most respected universities in the United States, a high school graduate achieves a degree of success. A college at a leading university might receive applications from two percent of these high school graduates, and then accept only one out of every ten who apply. Successful applicants at such colleges are usually chosen on the basis of:
a) high school records;
b) recommendations from high school teachers;
c) the impression they make during interviews at the university;
d) their scores on the Scholastic Aptitude Tests (SAT);
The system of higher education in the United States is complex. It comprises four categories of institution:
1. The university, which may contain:
- several colleges for undergraduate students seeking a bachelor’s four-year degree;
- one or more graduate schools for those continuing in specialized studies beyond the bachelor’s degree to obtain a master’s or a doctoral degree;
2. The four-year undergraduate institution – the college – most of which are not part of a university;
3. The technical training institution, at which high school graduates may take courses ranging from six months to four years in duration, and learn a wide variety of technical skills, from hair styling through business accounting to computer programming;
4. The two-year, or community college, from which students may enter many professions or may go to four-year colleges or universities.
Any of these institutions, in any category, might be either public or private, depending on the source of its funding. There is no clear or inevitable distinction in terms of quality of education offered between the institutions, which are publicly or privately funded. However, this is not to say that all institutions enjoy equal prestige, nor that there are no material differences among them.
Many universities and colleges, both public and private, have gained reputations for offering particularly challenging courses, and for providing their students with a higher quality of education. The great majority are generally regarded as quite satisfactory. A few other institutions, conversely, provide only adequate education, and students attend classes, pass examinations and graduate as merely competent, but not outstanding, scholars and professionals. The factors determining whether an institution is one of the best, or one of lower prestige, are: quality of teaching faculty, quality of research facilities, amount of funding available for libraries, special programs, etc., and the competence and number of applicants for admission, i.e. how selective the institution can be in choosing its students. All of these factors reinforce one another. In the United States it is generally recognized that there are more and less desirable institutions in which to study and from which to graduate. The more desirable institutions are generally – but not always – more costly to attend, and having graduated from one of them may bring distinct advantages as an individual seeks employment opportunities and social mobility within the society. Competition to get into such a college prompts a million secondary school students to take the SATs every year. But recently emphasis on admissions examinations has been widely criticized in the United States because the examinations tend to measure competence in mathematics and English. In defense of using the examinations as criteria for admissions, administrators at many universities say that SATs provide a fair way for deciding whom to admit when they have 10 or 12 applicants for every first-year student seat.
Can America’s colleges and universities rest on their accomplishments? About 12 million students currently attend schools of higher education in America. They are students in a society that believe in the bond between education and democracy.
Still, many Americans are not satisfied with the condition of higher education in their country. Perhaps the most widespread complaint has to do with the college curriculum as a whole and with the wide range of electives in particular. In the middle of 1980s, the Association of American Colleges (AAC) issued a report that called for teaching a body of common knowledge to all college students. The National Institute of Education (NIE) issued a somewhat similar report, “Involvement in Learning”. In its report, the NIE concluded that the college curriculum has become “excessively vocational and work-related”. The report also warned that college education may no longer be developing in students “the shared values and knowledge” that traditionally bind Americans together. A serious charge: Is it true?
For the moment, to some degree, it probably is. Certainly, some students complete their degree work without a course in Western Civilization – not to mention other world cultures. Others leave college without having studied science or government. As one response, many colleges have begun reemphasizing a core curriculum that all students must master.
Such problems are signs that American higher education is changing, as it has throughout its history. And, as in the past, this change may be leading in unexpected directions. The Puritans set up colleges to train ministers. But their students made their mark as the leaders of the world’s first constitutional democracy. The land grant colleges were founded to teach agriculture and engineering to the builders of the American West. Today, many of these colleges are leading schools in the world of scientific research. Americans have always had a stake in “making the system work”. They have especially critical reasons for doing so in the field of education. People in the United States today are faced with momentous questions: “What is America’s proper role as the world’s oldest constitutional democracy; its largest, economy; its first nuclear power?”
Americans cherish their right to express opinions on all such issues. But the people of the United States are also painfully aware of how complex such issues are. To take part in dealing with new problems, most Americans feel they need all the information they can get. Colleges and universities are the most important centers of such learning. And whatever improvements may be demanded, their future is almost guaranteed by the American thirst to advance and be well informed. In fact, the next charge in American education may be a trend for people to continue their education in college – for a lifetime.