Hwy-Chang Moon, professor and dean of the graduate school of international studies at Seoul National University, explains a series of data charts documenting South Korea's rise as an economic force. Moon's students have been analyzing factors that build a successful corporation and economic system. / Dave Breitenstein/news-press.com
About the project
Asian schools and universities have been generating accolades and curiosity worldwide as test scores and international rankings soar. Meanwhile, America keeps dropping on those same lists. The News-Press’ lead education writer traveled to Asia to see firsthand what transpires in classrooms and on campuses, pinpointing key factors that are driving the region’s educational success.
Higher education in the U.S. historically has been rock solid, a crown jewel envied across the globe.
“America is the best in the world,” said Yifan Yin, a 23-year-old graduate student from China who studied chemistry this spring at Florida Gulf Coast University.
The Ivy Leaguers and Stanfords and MITs continue their dominance, but the foundation of American higher ed – the state university – is beginning to wobble. Budget woes, space limitations, student loan debt and graduates’ high unemployment rates are eroding a once-proud network of institutions.
Meanwhile, colleges overseas have leaped onto the international stage, challenging America’s dominance in higher education.
The News-Press visited universities in five Asian countries, finding faculties stocked with U.S.-educated professors, joint research projects with Fortune 500 companies and sister institution relationships aimed at fostering academic and cultural exchanges.
Higher education in Asia has gained momentum, an inertia that could steamroll postsecondary education in America.
“Asia will be the center of gravity for the next century,” forecasts Hsiao-Wei Yuan, dean for international affairs at National Taiwan University.
International rankings confirm the surge.
Eleven Asian universities made the top 100 of London-based Times Higher Education’s 2012-13 World University Rankings, up from nine the previous year. Meanwhile, the U.S. saw a reduction from 51 to 47 institutions featured in the top 100.
“Collectively, the U.S. institutions in the top 200 list fell an average of 6.5 places,” said Phil Baty, rankings editor at Times Higher Ed. “If the U.S. wants to retain its competitive advantage, it needs to address this.”
Quacquarelli Symonds, another respected metric, listed 19 Asian universities and 31 American colleges in the top 100 of its World University Ranking.
No Florida institution cracked the top 100 in either list. The University of Florida fared the best, ranking No. 122 in Times’ list and No. 169 in QS’ lineup. Rankings aren’t an area of focus for the State University System, only the indicators behind the numbers.
“We are looking at things like graduation rates, retention rates, how long it takes for a student to graduate and whether they are getting jobs after they leave a university,” said Kim Wilmath, the university system’s director of communications. “If we improve in those areas, the national rankings will follow.”
Asia’s prestigious universities feverishly are signing pacts with America’s elite colleges. For example, Yale University and National University of Singapore joined forces to create a liberal arts and science institution that will draw students from across Asia.
The University of Tokyo is connected to Yale and Princeton University. Peking University in Beijing works hand-in-hand with the University of Southern California on multiple projects.
That trend has trickled to Southwest Florida as well. FGCU has agreements with 16 institutions: five in France, three in Germany and one each in the Bahamas, China, Hungary, Italy, New Zealand, Peru, Sweden and Wales. Arrangements allow for student and faculty exchanges, and also spell out joint research projects and initiatives.
Ultimately, partnerships equal prestige, so the best in Asia are trying to link to the best in America.
“Several top Asian institutions are becoming major global brands that can increasingly challenge the household names of Harvard, Stanford, MIT, etc., when it comes to forging strategic research partnerships and attracting talent,” Baty said.
Universities are blending cultures, ideological beliefs and academics. Almost 56 percent of instructors at the University of Hong Kong, for instance, are international.
While most professors at National Taiwan University are of Taiwanese or Chinese descent, 70 percent of faculty earned at least one degree abroad, two-thirds of which came from U.S. institutions. Intel and McDonald’s are among dozens of international businesses affiliated with NTU.
Yuan, Taiwan’s international affairs dean, believes Asia has fully embraced the concept of globalization as a give-and-take between nations, while America might still have a mindset that doesn’t go both ways.
“The whole world doesn’t revolve around the U.S.” said Yuan, who earned her Ph.D. from Cornell University.
When it comes to reciprocation, the U.S. sends far fewer students abroad than other nations send here. According to New York-based Institute of International Education, 764,495 international students studied in the U.S. during 2011-12, a 5.7 percent increase from the prior year. However, just 273,996 Americans took their books overseas, a 1.3 percent gain.
The discrepancy with China is particularly noteworthy. Data show 194,029 Chinese students ventured to the U.S., compared to 14,596 American students who studied there.
Fanyu Meng, a 21-year-old college student from China, was one of four Yantai University students who studied this spring at FGCU through its sister-institution relationship. No FGCU students studied at Yantai. Meng honed her English-speaking skills and soaked in American culture.
“If you have a chance to get abroad, it’s a very precious experience,” Meng said. “It opens your world so you can see and know more about it.”
Academic exchanges aren’t just encouraged in Asia; they’re expected.
National University of Singapore sends 2,000 students annually to 300 partner institutions across 40 countries, according to deputy president and provost Tan Eng Chye, who earned a master’s and Ph.D. at Yale University.
At the University of Hong Hong, students are advised to complete two or three international experiences, according to Albert Wai-lap Chau, dean of student affairs and director of general education.
Bugil Academy, a college preparatory high school in South Korea, operates a Global Leader Program with one overriding goal for students: earning acceptance letters from American universities.
“If they study hard, they can achieve their dream,” said program director Seungho Pi.
A degree from an American college can be more valuable for students than a degree earned in their homeland. It shows they are cultured, bi- or trilingual and have a global perspective.
But many of these international students take the education and run, returning to their homelands after graduation. Chau argues those aren’t wasted scholarships.
“American taxpayers are paying for these students, but it extends America’s influence around the world,” said Chau, who earned a master’s and doctorate from the University of Wisconsin.
Daniel Rottig, an associate professor at FGCU, said it’s difficult to teach international business without placing students in an international setting. He equates it to a swim instructor giving lessons on a football field instead of in a pool.
“You really don’t know if you can swim until you jump in the water,” he said.
Rottig launched a project called X-Culture that pairs FGCU students with their counterparts overseas. Students connect through Skype, social media and other electronic means, exploring topics in international business while gaining insight into other cultures.
Just 1 percent of American college students goes abroad during any given year, but programs like X-Culture are gaining traction.
“There is tremendous potential using technology to link classrooms, project work and discussions,” said Brad Farnsworth, assistant vice president of the American Council on Education’s Center for Internationalization and Global Engagement, which is based in Washington, D.C. “It’s not feasible for many students to get on an airplane and study somewhere else for a few months.”
Asian governments, recognizing that money drives research, reputations and rankings, are investing heavily in higher education because universities drive the economy. Funding pushes are most notable in China, South Korea and Singapore, Baty said.
Taiwan’s government is awarding university research grants totaling U.S. $3.3 billion over a 10-year period. Initiatives are aimed at enhancing teaching, research and academic excellence.
Singapore’s Ministry of Education provides all students with minimum tuition grants valued the equivalent of U.S. $16,304. International students must sign an agreement to live and work in Singapore for three years after graduation, thus contributing to the local economy and society.
“There is no doubt that it takes money, and lots of it, to maintain a position at the top of the global rankings,” Baty said. “You need money to recruit and retain the best faculty, to provide the best teaching facilities and laboratories, and to invest in research.”
After six years of shrunken budgets, Florida universities finally are entering an academic year with a little breathing room. Still, the damage may have been done. FGCU saw a loss of $15.7 million in operational funds, a 27 percent reduction, during the period of cutbacks.
Colleges that lead international rankings, not surprisingly, have the biggest budgets, endowments and tuition costs. Public institutions, however, don’t have those luxuries. Baty said universities filtering down the rankings are those where budgets have been dramatically cut.
“This is a potential tragedy in the making,” he said.
As class sizes and tuition increased, faculty salaries were frozen and staffing was cut. Henry Eyring, an author and vice president for advancement at Brigham Young University-Idaho, has watched as U.S. universities try to one-up each other with sparkling, modern facilities, hoping posh student lounges, flat-screen TVs equipped with game consoles, fast food and sit-down restaurants, fully furnished private dormitories and even bowling alleys help attract talented students.
“It’s Disney World for slightly older kids,” Eyring said. “It’s a theme park.”
Learning another language is a key point in globalization. U.S. Census numbers show just 10 percent of U.S.-born Americans are bilingual. When immigrants are included, that percentage doubles.
Across Asia, English is the foreign language of choice, and fluency can be a clincher in college admissions.
Cantonese is spoken in most Hong Kong homes, but the city’s top university conducts all classes and meetings in English, as does National University of Singapore. The University of Tokyo features two degree programs in which students can complete every course in English, and nearly 15 percent of courses at Seoul National University are taught in a language other than Korean.
“Globalization means you are good at English,” said Hayoung Kim, a 22-year-old senior at Seoul National University who started learning English as a child.
In much of the U.S., including Southwest Florida, there is little push for students to learn any Asian languages.
Spanish is the most popular foreign language in Lee County public schools, followed by French and German. In 2012-13, more Lee high school students took a long-extinct language, Latin, than Chinese – 17 to 12, respectively. Chinese courses aren’t offered in public schools, only virtual schools.
This fall, Florida Gulf Coast is offering Chinese, French, German, Latin, Portuguese and Russian, along with an overview of languages spoken by Florida native population. The university’s academic listing also shows Arabic, Italian, Japanese and Korean, but none of those courses will actually be taught this semester.
FGCU dropped its Spanish major in 2012 due to low enrollment.
Nearly one in four people on Earth speak Chinese, but China’s rise as an economic and political power has not resulted in a lasting push to learn the language. Li Nichols, a local Chinese language instructor, says it’s disappointing Mandarin hasn’t caught on in Southwest Florida, especially given China’s interest in working with America.
“We know very little about China, but they know a lot about us,” Nichols said.
Yanwing Leung, chair of foreign languages and literature at National Taiwan University, believes English may have run its course.
“Americans naturally think English is the universal language, but because of the 21st century new world order, Chinese is spoken in more areas,” said Leung, who completed his Ph.D. in English at Texas A&M University. “The Chinese influence will be far greater.”
Even though Chinese has not yet emerged as the world’s common language, Leung forecasts Arabic will be the next to rise in prominence.
“If they become a power of force, you have to learn their language,” he said.
Connect with Dave Breitenstein on Twitter (@D_Breitenstein) and Facebook (DaveBreitenstein).