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Two Different Leaders, Two Different Visions

Joseph E. Aoun
President, Northeastern University

Posted: January 4, 2010 02:54 PM

In France, President Nicolas Sarkozy announced that his government will invest €35 billion--more than $50 billion--to expand the country's universities and museums. In Pittsburgh, Mayor Luke Ravensthal recently proposed a 1 percent tax on tuition collected by the city's 10 colleges and universities.

President Sarkozy aims to transform the nation's universities into world-class institutions. Mayor Ravensthal aims to "save" a faltering city pension fund. (Even though a deal is being crafted to avoid the new tax, its proposal represents a warning shot.)

The U.S. has long championed (and benefited from) the link between higher education and advancement. Today, other nations seek to emulate our success by imitating our model. In addition to Sarkozy's recent move, many countries, particularly in Asia, are investing billions in the development of leading research institutions.

It is ironic--and a cause for concern--that around the world the commitment to higher education is dramatically increasing, while here it is under siege. In many East Coast cities we are seeing renewed calls to eliminate the tax-exempt status for non-profit colleges and universities. These and similar proposals, such as taxing tuition and endowments, are both short-sighted and self-defeating.

While it is not surprising that college and university leaders oppose taxes on their institutions, the arguments have shifted. Today this issue must be viewed through a global lens.

Consider some new facts. This fall, the London-based Times Higher Education published its annual list of Top 200 Global Universities. South Korea, Japan and China have increased their representation in the top 200, now claiming 26 spots. The U.S. lost four spots to other countries, going from 58 last year to 54 today. A recent Pew Survey revealed that for the first time a plurality of Americans--44 percent--believe China is the world's leading economic power; only 27 percent named the U.S. A year ago, the U.S. was at 40 percent and China 30 percent.

Americans have long accepted the individual benefits of a college degree. Before policymakers take steps that would undermine the world's best system of higher education, they should understand the benefits of the American system as a collective enterprise, particularly as it positions the U.S. for leadership in the world economy:

  • Higher education provides the intellectual capital that drives the American knowledge economy. Of the 77,501 patents issued to U.S.-based institutions last year, it is safe to say that most of these had deep and active roots in academia. It seems self-evident, but probably worth stating clearly today: New ideas come from higher education, and new ideas fuel our success within the global economy.
  • In a knowledge-based economy, an educated workforce is essential to maintain our competitive position. President Obama understands this, which is why he has called for dramatically increasing the number of college-educated citizens over the next decade. A strong, diverse higher education sector is vital to our national interests.
  • Regions around the country benefit from the presence of strong colleges and universities. The city of Boston provides a powerful example. A 2003 report by the economic research firm Appleseed found that in 2000--the height of the high-tech boom--Greater Boston's eight research universities provided a7.4 billion boost to the regional economy. According to the non-profit Boston Foundation, between 2001 and 2006 higher education was one of the only sectors to grow in Boston, adding 11 percent more jobs in the city and 14 percent more in Massachusetts.

The strength of these points should not imply that American higher education is without its challenges. To achieve President Obama's bold college attainment goals, the American model will need to change and diversify. Different aspects of globalization will force universities out of traditional comfort zones; insular approaches will give way to genuine global partnerships.

The bottom line, however, is clear: In a globally competitive marketplace, the nation that is home to an unparalleled higher education system would be wise to invest in its continued strength.