How good are American universities? How can you tell?
In a well-documented article for the New York Times Kevin Carey explains that Americans lag the world in education. Receiving a degree is not the same thing as receiving an education.
Carey evaluates the evidence fairly, but this requires him to lead us through a series of studies, tests and evaluations.
It is true, he explains, that America has some of the greatest institutions of higher learning. But, that is for the 1%. When you look at the rest of the educational system, and especially how well educated Americans are, the results are far less sanguine.
It’s fine, Carey says, to rate universities by the number of Nobel laureates on their faculties, but if you test students and graduates themselves, you discover that they cannot compete with their peers around the world.
The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, for example, periodically administers an exam called PISA to 15-year-olds in 69 countries. While results vary somewhat depending on the subject and grade level, America never looks very good. The same is true of other international tests. In PISA’s math test, the United States battles it out for last place among developed countries, along with Hungary and Lithuania.
America’s perceived international dominance of higher education, by contrast, rests largely on global rankings of top universities. According to a recent ranking by the London-based Times Higher Education, 18 of the world’s top 25 universities are American. Similarly, the Academic Ranking of World Universities, published annually by Shanghai Jiao Tong University, gives us 19 of 25.
The Organization for Economic and Commercial development has tested adults around the world. The results, for America, are not encouraging.
The project is called the Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (known as Piaac, sometimes called “pee-ack”). In 2011 and 2012, 166,000 adults ages 16 to 65 were tested in the O.E.C.D. countries (most of Europe along with the United States, Canada, Australia, Japan and South Korea) and Cyprus and Russia.
Like PISA, Piaac tests people’s literacy and math skills. Because the test takers were adults, they were asked to use those skills in real-world contexts. They might, for example, be asked to read a news article and an email, each describing a different innovative method of improving drinking water quality in Africa, and identify the sentence in each document that describes a criticism common to both inventions. The test also included a measure of “problem-solving in technology-rich environments,” reflecting the nature of modern work.
When the test was limited to college graduates, America did not fare very much better:
Only 18 percent of American adults with bachelor’s degrees score at the top two levels of numeracy, compared with the international average of 24 percent. Over one-third of American bachelor’s degree holders failed to reach Level 3 on the five-level Piaac scale, which means that they cannot perform math-related tasks that “require several steps and may involve the choice of problem-solving strategies.” Americans with associate’s and graduate degrees also lag behind their international peers.
American results on the literacy and technology tests were somewhat better, in the sense that they were only mediocre. American adults were eighth from the bottom in literacy, for instance. And recent college graduates look no better than older ones. Among people ages 16 to 29 with a bachelor’s degree or better, America ranks 16th out of 24 in numeracy. There is no reason to believe that American colleges are, on average, the best in the world.
Why does it matter? Because of what it portends for the international labor market.
We should worry less about government-mandated minimum wage levels and ask ourselves how much value an American worker can add to an enterprise. If, as Carey suggests, an undereducated American worker will add less value than a foreign worker, corporations will have an incentive to move jobs overseas. Why pay higher wages to workers who cannot make a concomitant contribution to their companies?
This reality should worry anyone who believes — as many economists do — that America’s long-term prosperity rests in substantial part on its store of human capital. The relatively high pay of American workers will start to erode as more jobs are exposed to harsh competition in global labor markets. It will be increasingly dangerous to believe that only our K-12 schools have serious problems.