U.S. Higher Education Endures

In these unprecedented times, a deep and abiding commitment to teach the next generation of global leaders at U.S. universities will endure.

By Roger Brindley

July 2020

U.S. Higher Education Endures

The Pattee Library and mall at the Pennsylvania State University. NATHANIEL C. SHEETZ/Courtesy Wikipedia

In these times of uncertainty, many university-bound students and their parents are looking for evidence of trustworthy and established institutions around the world. Many students are wondering what the future holds for their broader higher education plans, and for their dreams to study for an undergraduate or graduate degree abroad.

Let me take this opportunity to both inform and reassure you that not only will the strength of U.S. higher education persevere, but that the top U.S. universities have quickly adjusted and can now provide an increased access to a world-class education anywhere on the globe.

“World-class” is a woefully overused expression, but when it comes to U.S. higher education, it is an accurate statement. Consider the current profile of U.S. universities in the world’s top three rankings:

  • The QS rankings, one of the three major ranking systems in the world, includes 27 U.S. universities in the top 100 universities in the world. That’s impressive.
  • The Times Higher Education rankings include 40 U.S. universities in the top 100 universities in the world.
  • Even that is eclipsed by the Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU), where the United States holds 45 of the top 100, 31 of the top 50, 16 of the top 20, and 8 of the top 10 universities.

If you extend this out to the top 200, 300 or 500 universities, the same pattern prevails. It is no exaggeration to state that many of the top 250 U.S. universities are among the most profound institutions of further learning in the world today. Simply put, in these extraordinary times, a deep and abiding commitment to teach the next generation of global leaders at U.S. universities will endure.

You may ask—what makes the U.S. higher education system so strong? There are some distinctive and noteworthy aspects to university life in the United States.
The first is our tradition of liberal arts. This means that students don’t just gain knowledge in their chosen field, but they also learn to broadly comprehend their world. These students don’t just learn theory, but they also learn to apply that knowledge in real-world situations through projects, inquiry and research.

Why is this so important? It is essential that a computer scientist working with artificial intelligence, a business owner using predictive analytics, or a biomedical engineer analyzing the human genome all have a clear and responsible understanding of humanity. Similarly, a social scientist must have a practical understanding of how rapid changes in medicine and technology fundamentally affect communities and society, locally and globally. A liberal arts tradition brings this emphasis and philosophy to academic enterprise.

Further, experiential learning and career readiness are two areas where U.S. higher education has an exemplary tradition. Many U.S. institutions have a stated strategic plan to prepare globally engaged students and to ensure their success in our connected world. Students have opportunities to complete research, internships, hands-on projects and practicums as a requirement of their academic plan. The U.S. curriculum values the concept of challenging students to show that they can apply their new understandings in relevant, critical and innovative ways.

Almost every U.S. university has an active Career Services office, dedicated to helping students prepare for life after graduation. Universities connect students and recent graduates with business and industry—and U.S. institutions take alumni networking very seriously. My institution, Pennsylvania State University, for example, has the largest dues-paying alumni network in the world, with a commitment to lifelong support and networking of graduates.

In the United States, students do not come to university simply to study; they come to form lifelong bonds, to involve themselves in the community outside of the classroom through campus-life experiences such as student organizations and athletics, and to grow personally as a productive member of society. As a former colleague once told me, “The purpose of an undergraduate education is to turn an 18-year-old into a 22-year-old!” I am sure parents will appreciate that notion. Helping graduate students develop the skills for a vibrant, successful and satisfying career is equally important.

This is what the U.S. higher education system offers. The United States has long benefited by welcoming Indian students, who have enriched our society and, in many cases, returned home to enrich their communities. We allow all students the opportunity to pursue their lifetime goals as competent, confident and highly skilled individuals, ready to become impactful leaders in their communities.

Looking forward, each U.S. university will make its own determination regarding the return to campus. Many are currently building their plans for the upcoming fall semester around one, two or three models of instruction: a classic residential experience, a fully online experience and a hybrid experience. The benefits of a residential experience are undeniable given the U.S. system is uniquely qualified to offer academic and cocurricular excellence to students from around the world. However, many of our institutions also have world-class, highly interactive, student-centered remote delivery of exemplary education. In India, I know that online programs have not always been widely regarded and, perhaps for some students, the experience may have been underwhelming.

However, remote digital delivery of coursework in the United States has been steadily improving for the past two decades. Our online courses are highly interactive, and feature asynchronous and synchronous experiences, with faculty using sophisticated digital teaching resources such as crystal boards and blue screens. Please be assured that at many U.S. institutions, this is indicative of our innovative values and represents our dedication to preparing students for the future.

I would like to close by discussing one more very important issue in contemporary American society. There has, quite rightly, been much coverage in the Indian media about the current protests in the United States, and the coverage makes this movement seem disruptive. To that, I say: they are partially correct. It is disruptive—in fact, disruption is the point and, in the context of U.S. history, this self-reflection is long overdue! History has shown the power of protest, all around the world, from the United States to India and beyond. The United States will be a better country for addressing issues of equity in society and confirming what our forefathers believed—that we are all created equally.

As a father of a daughter who studied in Asia for three years, I understand the concern of sending a child to a country halfway around the world, but life continues unabated in the United States, and there are more positive changes in our society to come. All the while, Indian students are warmly welcome.
We live in uncertain times. But one thing I am certain of: a degree from a U.S. institution opens a world of possibilities for any graduate. I hope you will consider granting this opportunity to yourself or your student.

Roger Brindley is the vice provost for Global Programs at the Pennsylvania State University.


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