America's Education Problem Isn't Money, It's How We Spend It

Students from the United States are falling behind.


In Bill Gates's words, "When I compare our high schools to what I see when I'm traveling abroad, I'm terrified for our workforce of tomorrow." Based on my own travels in 111 countries, I'd say he has it about right. America obviously has some great students, some excellent teachers, and some fine schools—but on average we are patently noncompetitive by global standards. In fact, today's younger generation is the first in our nation's history to be less well-educated than its parents.So how then have we managed to maintain a GDP per capita six times that of the rest of the world and enjoyed a standard of living to match? One answer is partly by eating our seed corn—education and scientific research take a long time to replace. Another is by depending on individuals who come to America from other nations for their education and decide to stay, build new companies, and contribute to job growth in America. Immigrants have made enormous contributions in creating jobs for Americans, from Andrew Carnegie (Scotland) and Joseph Pulitzer (Hungary) to eBay founder Pierre Omidyar (France), Intel founder Andy Grove (Hungary), and Sergey Brin (Russia), who helped found Google.[ See a collection of political cartoons on immigration.]Fully two thirds of the Ph.D.'s in engineering granted by U.S. universities in recent years have been awarded to foreign-born students, more of whom now say they are planning to return home—often with the forceful encouragement of our antiquated visa system that pushes them to compete against us rather than to stay and join with us. Jerry Yang, cofounder and former CEO of Yahoo!, says that "Yahoo! would not be an American company today if the United States had not welcomed my family and me almost 30 years ago."The problem in K-12, for once, isn't money—the problem is how we spend our money. Only Switzerland and Luxembourg devote more per student than we. McKinsey & Co. calculates that if we could match Finland in K-12 educational achievement, America's GDP would be about $2 trillion larger, the financial equivalent of three "stimulus packages" every year. And, not unrelated, according to the Atlantic, a year in a New Jersey prison costs more than a year at Princeton (the latter tied for No. 1 in U.S. News's rankings of Best National Universities).Sixty-nine percent of U.S. middle school students have math teachers without degrees or certificates in the field they teach. Meanwhile, when the writer, an aerospace engineer who tutored advanced calculus while in college, took early retirement from industry, he was proclaimed unqualified to teach eighth-grade math in any public school in his state due to the lack of teaching and union credentials. (He was subsequently invited to join the faculty of the Princeton School of Engineering.)[ See the 10 cities with the highest concentrations of baby boomers.]And what a time for the roof to leak, just when it is raining. America's higher education system, long the world's gold standard (the Times of London has said that the top five universities in the world and 18 of the top 25 are located in the United States) is now severely challenged by often-draconian budget cuts, tuition increases, and faculty layoffs. State funding of our public universities has reached a 25-year low, with budget reductions already imposed that average 24 percent (plus inflation)—and more is clearly in store. What is not too subtly occurring is a de facto privatizing of our public universities, with present and future students footing the bill—while foreign institutions seek to attract our most promising faculty members. The writer recently visited one foreign university that had added 14 new senior faculty members—of these, 13 came from the United States.Ironically, in spite of these trends, there will most likely be no engineer shortage in America. Our firms will simply continue to move their engineering work overseas, along with their research laboratories and the new jobs thereby created across the employment spectrum.