College Goes Global

Courtesy Reuters


In June, students of Shengda College, in Xinzheng, China, staged one of the most disruptive and violent protests since pro-democracy demonstrators took to Beijing's Tiananmen Square in 1989. Riot police were called in, the campus was locked down, and the college headmaster eventually resigned. The students rioted because they had received diplomas imprinted with the name of Shengda College rather than ones with the name of the more prestigious Zhengzhou University, the college's nominal mother school, which they claimed had been promised to them. They felt cheated after having paid five times the tuition that Zhengzhou University students pay, and they worried that getting the lesser degree would shut them out of China's economic future.

The unusual cause of this rampage reveals much about the role of higher education in today's global marketplace. Implicit in the incident is the recognition that a college degree is an indispensable passport to the globalized knowledge economy of the twenty-first century. Higher education, once the rarefied province of the elite, is now viewed by most nations as an indispensable strategic tool for shaping, directing, and promoting economic growth. There was, of course, an explicit message in the Shengda students' actions as well: a diploma from the "right" university is incomparably more valuable than just any old degree. Meritocracy be damned: pedigree counts.

Both of these messages would seem to bode well for U.S. universities. Since the end of World War II, the United States has been recognized as the world leader in higher education. It has more colleges and universities, enrolls and graduates more students, and spends more on advanced education and research than any other nation. Each year, more than half a million foreigners come to the United States to study. A widely cited article written by researchers at Shanghai Jiao Tong University that looked at the academic ranking of universities worldwide based on faculty quality and research output found that more than half of the top 100 universities in the world

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