They Come to America: The Enduring Attraction of American Higher Education

They Come to America: The Enduring Attraction of Higher Education in the U.S.

What is it about an American university education that makes millions of students want to compete, struggle, sacrifice, fight, and beg for admission? For example, the idea of a Harvard Bachelor’s or an engineering degree at MIT is something tantamount to attaining godhood in many countries. It is the finishing touch that will supposedly make one’s life complete, along with acquiring a Mercedes, oceanfront property, and dividends from high-yield stocks. All of this is ironic when one considers the sad fact that America lags far behind its industrialized world counterparts in primary and secondary education, embarrassingly so. It is also ironic when one considers the variety of social problems that are present on a number of campuses, such as binge drinking, drugs, cheating, date rape, or lack of basic classroom respect in an age of texting and social media. America’s universities are much younger than its international counterparts; Princeton’s architecture is laughable when one considers the thousand-plus year old architecture of Oxford. And many of these universities, like Oxford, Bologna, or the Sorbonne hold much older traditions of higher education that go back centuries, if not millennia. Needless to say, the cost of higher education in the United States is staggering; while people in France might protest a €200 tuition increase per year, people here are paying $200,000 for their entire university education.

But there is something very special about studying in the United States, despite all these problems and the relative youth of our institutions. Why is an American education so sought-after?

-American universities are well-funded. Granted, not every university has a Harvard-sized endowment. But American schools generally all have decent libraries and laboratories. There is computer access and technology. There are great resources for both inside and outside the classroom, extracurricular activities, and campus housing and dormitories that make for a complete experience. There might be strong sports facilities, concert halls, art studios, media labs, and more. Even in an age-old prestigious university overseas, there might not be suitable facilities to further one’s development.

-The style of liberal arts education. In a majority of countries around the world, students are tracked into a single discipline upon entry. There are very few electives and classes taken in fields that are not pertinent to one’s major. In America, there is almost always some form of a core curriculum and requirements that serve to broaden one’s mind, requiring humanities majors to take a math class and engineering majors to take a social science class. In the classroom, the style of education is not rote, but seeks to challenge and knock down students’ beliefs in order for them to be rebuilt. There is much discussion, original thought is valued, and critical inquiry is key to learning and growing. There are sacred texts and new thinkers; the canon lays the groundwork in many schools and in others, students get to choose classes that feel relevant to their style of education. America is particularly strong and cutting edge in the STEM fields, and so it is a popular choice for many students from overseas. 

-The diversity of institutions. If you want a research school where you attend classes that are lectures given by global experts in their field, America has that. If you want a state university where you get to mix with the locals and have an authentic American experience with lower tuition, that is available. Perhaps you learn best in a small setting, and so a small liberal arts college fits the bill. Maybe you come from a conservative country where there is gender segregation in education, so a women’s college is the only choice your parents will approve of. If you are a genius in a STEM field, you opt for one of the top universities in the country that focuses on science and technology. Or you might be a future leader in your country that has deep political trouble, and so you choose an institution that supports refugees and political thinkers. Whatever your pedagogical goals or style, there is a school to meet your needs.

-The best universities are truly global. Students will make friends with people from every corner of the earth and the United States, make friendships for life, and even connections that will help with their careers. Embracing diversity at a young age reduces prejudice, and it creates a global culture that is so necessary in an age of a terrifying rise of the right wing. 

-There is an openness and positivity to American education when it is working well. The higher education systems in many other countries serve to weed out students, allowing only the elite to continue, or discouraging otherwise good students who have not been at the top of their class. French people often complain about the pessimism and negativity of their education system, and people in many countries have lamented the fact that they were not able to study medicine because they did not make the cut in the entrance exams, though they otherwise would have been excellent doctors. Students here are allowed to change their mind as to what they are studying, and there is a tremendous support system for students in American universities with academic advising, counseling, and career centers. The attitude is yes rather than no, and there is a pervading sense of equality that allows for anyone, no matter what their background, to succeed if they are willing to work hard. Professors are willing to talk to students in office hours, and students are allowed to criticize the professors in end-of-the-term evaluations. This, in turn, encourages immigrants who choose to stay to contribute to American society, and these immigrants are a huge factor in America’s success.

-Finally, American undergraduate culture is fun. Granted, in too many schools there are not healthy boundaries with what is considered “fun,” and it becomes a very toxic, partying culture that wastes education. But at the bottom of it, college is seen as a time when students grow, bond with each other, enjoy their experiences and learning and outside the classroom, forming friendships for a lifetime. There are fun activities for holidays, traditions that are unique and specific to each culture, even great rituals specific to each institution (MIT hacks, anyone?) Undergraduate learning is not only about learning, but about enjoying one’s youth.

These are just some of the reasons why American universities are a popular choice; certainly, many more exist. And in turn, many Americans love going overseas for a study abroad or an internship, wanting to broaden their own horizons and see the world.