By Emma Kaden

The U.S. education system has its flaws and its advantages, just like every other education system in the world. However, the United States outranks other countries when it comes to higher education, for one very specific reason: the American higher education system was created under very unique circumstances.

In terms of the number of Nobel laureates produced, eight of the world’s top ten universities are in the United States. Forty-two of the world’s 50 largest university endowments are in America. And, when ranked by research output,15 of the top 20 institutions are based in the US.”

According to an article by David F. Labaree, the first American universities received no support from the federal government, operating as nonprofit entities funded by student tuition, donations from local citizens, and whatever pittances the state was willing to contribute. However, there was also no government control.

Since there was little to no government involvement, American universities were extremely independent. Professors had the utmost freedom in choosing what and how to teach. In many other countries, universities are state-owned and state-funded, which gives the state full control of the university.

In the twenty-first century, it is not possible for colleges to emerge with the same degree of autonomy that American colleges enjoyed some 200 years ago, before the development of a strong nation-state.

Up until the mid-twentieth century, American universities were just as autonomous as they were in the 1800s, even state colleges. However, as the federal government increased its involvement in and funding of higher education, things began to change. As universities became more reliant on government funds, they lost their independence. Unfortunately, the United States seems willing to sacrifice the very notions of freedom and robust debate that made American universities second to none. The nation is in danger of losing its advantage over other countries, although these countries can never replicate the circumstances under which America’s world-class higher education system was established.

Can other systems of higher learning adapt the US model of educational excellence to local conditions? The answer is straightforward: no.

Higher education in the United States may be costly, but global excellence can’t be achieved without sacrifice. The American higher education system was built on values that are still somewhat upheld, even after two centuries. A college education, once a luxury, is now a critical part of success in today’s society. America’s education system is exceptional— unique in a way most countries simply can’t duplicate. College is an integral part of the American experience, and something that shouldn’t be taken for granted. The U.S. higher education system may have reached exceptionalism due to unique circumstances, but it is the continued strive toward excellence that really puts the American higher education system above the rest.

David F. Labaree is Professor of Education at Stanford University, and the author of A Perfect Mess: The Unlikely Ascendancy of American Higher Education.

The article quoted appeared in Project Syndicate on May 17, 2018 and can be found here.

American Exceptionalism in Higher Education
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