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.

A Response to Richard V Reeves’s Op-Ed in The Guardian

Just this morning, I read the article by Brookings Institution researcher Richard V Reeves on how elite university entrance is rigged, an op-ed written in light of the recent scandal with college prep fraudster William “Rick” Singer being caught for bribing and highly unethical activity to get children of the wealthy into prestigious universities.
I am irate, as my alma mater of Stanford was one of the schools cited in “Operation Varsity Blues” (the FBI’s name for this bribing for admission scandal). Yesterday, the president of the Stanford Alumni Association sent out an email condemning what has happened:

Dear Stanford alum,

By now you may have seen news that the U.S. Justice Department has charged several dozen people around the country, including Stanford’s head sailing coach, as part of an alleged bribery scheme to try to win the admission of prospective students to a number of U.S. colleges and universities.

This behavior runs completely counter to Stanford’s core values. The university has consequently fired the head sailing coach, who later today pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit racketeering.

The university has issued a public statement here: and the President and Provost have published their own blogpost on this situation here:

No evidence has been presented indicating that the conduct of the head sailing coach involves anyone else at Stanford or is associated with any other team at Stanford. However, we will be undertaking an investigation to confirm this.

As I hope you know, the integrity of our admissions process is absolutely central to the mission and purpose of our university. We will consequently continue working to actively address this situation so as to regain your trust in that process.


Howard E. Wolf, ’80
Vice President for Alumni Affairs, Stanford University
President, Stanford Alumni Association

A necessary statement to assure is that the institution will not tolerate any sort of corrupt or unethical behavior.

I would like to comment on Mr. Reeves’s intelligent article. The key points he makes are that Singer’s behaviors were rightly caught and apprehended by the FBI, the whole system is corrupt and rigged in favor of the affluent, legacy children are admitted preferentially, as are the children of major donors, and that upper-middle-class families can afford to give their children tutoring, prep classes, and any sort of educational advantages possible. He also concludes by saying that these Ivy League and elite universities perpetuate socioeconomic inequality, and that the whole system is unfair. Mr. Reeves is British-educated, at the no-less-elite Oxford University (where I myself was an exchange student during my junior year, and which I would argue is even more unequal than any American Ivy League university), and holds a doctorate from the University of Warwick, a public research university. His body of work is quite impressive and is exactly the sort of highly-researched, intelligent, liberal writing that we need. He writes of his own background in a NY Times Op-Ed piece from two years ago:

which describes his own background, but again, makes some generalizations about American society. There were some things in The Guardian article that nettled me, a few sweeping generalizations again that seemed to ignore a more complex picture.

Both while at Stanford and after, I have sometimes felt that it is by and large an upper-middle-class institution, in terms of its ethos. The student body did seem to come from this socioeconomic stratum, and I have seen also how the upper-middle class is able to send their children to good private schools or live in wealthy areas where the school districts are very good but the housing costs are very high. The majority of my Indian-American peers were from well-to-do suburbs of big cities and from more prosperous families. I, in contrast, grew up in a very middle/lower-middle-class college town in the country in the Midwest, the daughter of Indian immigrants, and it was certainly a loving sacrifice for my parents to send me to a school like Stanford. I was fortunate that my parents valued education, that my father was a college professor, and that I got to visit a few campuses before applying for undergraduate admission. My public schooling was quite mediocre. My high school offered only one AP class, and I was able to take another AP exam on my own and do well enough to give me advanced standing in one subject in college. A number of students in my school did not go to college, or if so, they attended ordinary public institutions that were not at all selective. At Stanford, I often felt dazzled and bewildered, that I was truly on a different planet and with a very different social class of people. But the experience did indeed offer me mobility, as I had escaped my small town completely by my own efforts and volition. I also had other friends from the area in which I grew up who had a similar background, some of them children of immigrants, and some of them not. And some students who were quite bright were not able to apply to and attend private universities, so Reeves’s point does hold true in terms of economics playing a big part of one’s higher education.

But still, Mr. Reeves overlooks that quite a high number of students who attend the elite schools in America are children of immigrants, self-made, and whose parents made sacrifices to send their kids to top institutions of higher education. There are also a number of very ordinary middle-class and lower-middle-class students who attend elite universities (some of my closest college friends were from these backgrounds), and students who work during college in order to help support themselves. Also, the big schools’ large endowments mean that they offer loans and scholarships (if only Stanford’s generous package now offered existed when I was in college!), and the admissions are need-blind.

There is the issue of legacy students, but from what I have seen, the children are no less worthy of admission to Stanford than their parents and are highly accomplished in their own right. But I have indeed often questioned this system and felt it unfair, wondering if I did not get in to some universities because a legacy student who was equally or less qualified did. In terms of wealth, I had also wondered if I didn’t get into one of the Ivy League schools to which I applied because another girl with a similar profile came from a wealthy family. In the past couple of years, Harvard has come under fire and is being investigated for discriminating against Asian-Americans; having looked at some of the data from around the time of when I applied to college, I suspect I could be one of those who was not admitted due to this alleged racial bias. There is no question that children of donors and ultra-wealthy are being admitted and alarming fashion – Jared Kushner is indeed a prime, horrible example. At top public universities, there are also a number of very wealthy students who come from out-of-state and more and more, overseas. This has raised a lot of questions in places like California, where in-state residents have been protesting that they have been shut out due to wealthy internationals who pay more.

I can somewhat agree with Mr. Reeves’s point that these universities perpetuate elitism and inequality—but to a certain point and to a certain amount of the population. My feeling is that Mr. Reeves has commented on the recent scandal in a bit of a knee-jerk fashion, that he has overlooked the complexity of the picture of who attends Ivy League schools, that he does not see the subtleties of class mobility and class-crossing in the United States (would the son or daughter of an executive in Britain work at a pizzeria in the summer? I doubt that), and that he is overgeneralizing what is indeed true about the rich and upper-middle-class to all of the applicants to elite universities. Britain is an extremely class-conscious society, and though they acknowledge it openly unlike us here, there is a more ingrained sense of one’s place and perhaps even less mobility.

He fails to recognize that the top universities in the US also happen to draw the best minds and talents. If you are a physics genius, but happen to be the son or daughter of a doctor, are you admitted only because you are upper-middle-class? I think not. I recently have been involved with interviewing prospective Stanford students, and I have been impressed by the intelligence and ability and public service of these kids.

Stanford is very different from a Harvard which is very different from a Georgetown. This is very important to understand. Stanford is a younger university and an engineering school, and in any STEM-focused university, there is a no-BS atmosphere, due to the amount of work students must do.

In sum, does money contribute to and affect one’s higher education and class status? Absolutely. Is there inequality in the elite institutions? Yes, but not to the degree Mr. Reeves suggests, or at least not in the way he describes it. Do we need to do more as a society to work on reducing inequality? Absolutely yes, and it is dangerous how our society is becoming more and more class-stratified. Am I critical of Stanford University and other elite institutions? Yes. Am I a product of them? Yes, but I do think critically and don’t follow things blindly. And perhaps that is the first step toward reducing inequality and creating a more democratic society.

The Role of Education in Different Cultures

This is not an empirical study about education around the world. Rather, it is an observation and impressions of how different countries regard the purpose of schooling. Given my own background working in education (international and postsecondary, as well as a little bit in primary), Master’s degree in higher and postsecondary education, as well as my undergraduate degree in anthropology, I am always fascinated by how people learn around the world. I have worked with students from a wide range of cultures, and have also traveled to a number of countries.

What I have observed from Asian cultures is that education is of primary importance, that it trumps almost all other core values. Many of these countries have civilizations that are thousands of years old, and great scholars are revered–Chinese philosopher Lao-Tzu is still read around the world today, despite the fact that he wrote in the 6th century BC. Being educated and intelligent means being highly respected.

Education is also, nowadays, a tool for betterment in society. Education is the competitive edge, the social currency in which people trade. If you do not study hard, you will not do well in school. If you do not do well in school, this will have dire consequences upon your career. To a certain degree, this is true all over the world. However, the way in which families and individuals place importance in this belief is probably higher in Asia and elsewhere. This leads to another important point–parents are very involved in their children’s education. Beyond the “tiger mother” archetype written about by Amy Chua, parental involvement and simply caring about one’s child’s learning makes for better learners and fewer behavior problems. Statistics from countless studies prove this point.

One key explanation for the competitive, even “dog-eat-dog” climate is a high population. China and India lead the world (and then add in the other former Indian countries of Pakistan and Bangladesh), Indonesia is number four, and then the highly developed Japan and Korea which are also ranked highly in terms of population. Therefore, doing well in school is, at the bottom of it all, a survival strategy. When there is so much competition, and often not enough resources, one has to outdo one’s peers. Anything that is concrete and measurable is the best way to determine this when there are so many students to evaluate; therefore, anything that detract from this is seen as “fluffy” and useless. A great emphasis is placed on completion, jumping through hoops, and where one studies. India has, sadly unbeknownst to many Americans and Westerners, a system of universities in technology and management (Indian Institutes of Technology, or IIT, and Indian Institutes of Management, or IIM). These schools are directly pipelines into graduate programs at Ivy League and other top-ranked schools.

Critics of Asian education complained that it is rote and does not value critical thinking and creativity. These are certainly fair criticisms, especially when compared to education in America and other Western countries. Looking at Asian philosophies of education from a non-relative (read: American) point of view, and having worked with many Asian students, I have to say I concur that there is less flexibility and originality. But advocates say it works for them, and their booming economies are proof.

But there is a dark side to all of this: This pressure on students can sometimes lead to dire consequences: depression, low self-esteem, and at its worst, suicide. Parents can be unrelenting and unyielding, have unrealistic expectations of their children and push their own unfulfilled dreams on their offspring. The extreme emphasis on education, frankly, is a two-edged sword.

Europe is a fascinating area to analyze, because it is not homogenous. Continental Europe differs within itself, and then it also differs from Scandinavia which differs from the United Kingdom. What strikes me most is that Europe often tracks or separates students from a young age. This is positive as well as negative. There is a recognition in many European countries like Germany that a “bookish” education that stresses academic and intellectual learning is not always suitable for everyone, and vice versa. Vocational education is not frowned upon, and often those with such educations do quite well financially and in their careers. Critics of American education often lament that our one-size-fits-all system does not help many students, who are really wasting their time as well as our resources on education that will not help them in the future. Many European countries, such as Italy, therefore can make academic schools more relevant to the students who are qualified enough to attend: they can attend a high school for classics, sciences, etc. Finland, which was recently featured in Michael Moore’s film “Where to Invade Next,” does not believe in cramming students with information and homework, giving them a chance to develop as whole people and as equals. Various folk schools in the Nordic countries and Germany and Austria provide lifelong learning opportunities for adult learners. In the United Kingdom, there is a mix of private schools (ironically known as “public” schools) favored by the upper classes and international elite in addition to state schools. There are universities funded by the state, but like in the United States, ranking is more of an issue. A university like Oxford or Cambridge is world-class, but then there are numerous universities both public and private that provide higher education to a large number of people.

There are many criticisms to be made here. Tracking students early on seems, to an American educator, extremely detrimental, especially if in a country where there is very little opportunity later for career mobility or changes. Many students do not bloom till later, do not find their calling our passion till they have left secondary school. This favors a Darwinian “survival of the fittest” philosophy where the best students are earmarked quite early and therefore university education is not accessible to anyone but the top few percent. In Belgium, however, higher education is open to everyone (with the exception of a few fields), but we must remember that Belgium’s population is nearly 11.2 million people–far behind the larger countries of Germany, the United Kingdom, and France. Same for the Finnish system – a holistic, less-competitive education can work when there is little competition. England’s education system is still, like the country itself, very class-based and becoming costly. Loans are often necessary, as in the United States, to go to university.

The United States is much maligned for this reason, and for many others. The quality of one’s education depends on the wealth of one’s neighborhood. Standardized testing has killed a teacher’s intuition as to what will work best for his or her classroom, leaving it in the hands of authorities. Teachers have to serve as students’ psychologists and babysitters, due to poor parenting. Many educators and curricula emphasize touchy-feely, “Mickey Mouse,” boost-your-self-esteem models that make our students embarrassingly behind in global rankings such as PISA. Sports and prom are high priorities in some schools, as opposed to new lab equipment and music programs. Violence and drugs threaten schools in lower SES areas. On the flip side, there are children who are under pressure, overcommitted to extracurricular activities and punished when their report cards do not show all A’s. These are children–yes, children–and more and more of them are on medications to deal with their anxiety. Their parents call the admissions offices of Ivy League universities did not admit their children. Each year does not go by without hearing of at least a handful of suicides by children who did not get into their top choice of college. And this is for the people who can actually afford to go to college. Each new generation bears more and more debt, and one wonders if these students will ever be able to become debt-free. Is there anything good about the American education system?

Despite all these significant shortcomings, I would argue yes. Despite the fact that America desperately needs K-12 school reform, as well as radical changes in college tuition and loans, there are a number of things to admire. The American system is fundamentally based on openness and positivity. Students are encouraged to try. They are encouraged to challenge ideas, to assert their own opinions, and to be creative. Having a well-rounded education in academics as well as extracurriculars such as music, sports, debate, etc. is considered ideal. Our education system also wishes to address diversity, both in the classroom as well as in the curriculum. Children are taught from an early age that everyone is equal, and to treat all people and races as equal. Different educational needs, from gifted children to special education, are acknowledged. The can-do spirit allows for exceptional individuals who want to return at the age of 60 to finish high school diploma. It allows for students to change their mind from being a statistics major to becoming a premed and eventually a psychiatrist. The best universities in the world are in America, and there is fierce competition worldwide to attend them. Great innovators, scholars, dissident writers–there is a place for them in American academia. Our task is to bring that dynamism into K-12 education to make it accessible to everybody, where a high quality American education is as vital as liberty and justice for all.

The Academic Novel and My Current Writing Project

My current literary project is a collection of stories and novellas set at a fictitious research university.  The origins of this project are somewhat unexpected.  I had not set about to write a collection of stories, as I have always seen myself as a novelist.  However, the novel I had begun working on after my second round of graduate school had become too unwieldy; as much as I loved it and still do (it will be my next project that I complete, and I have returned to it from time to time), I knew I had to put it aside.

I had written a couple of short stories while working on the novel, and I felt that in order to do well at the novel, I had to master the shorter form.  There were things the shorter form could teach me (the act of completion, for one), such as technique and craft that were easier to see in a story.  I had also thought it would be fascinating to explore the emotional dilemmas of characters who are in different academic subjects were fields.  Where did emotion and the idea meet?  My reasons for doing this were indeed personal:  as a graduate student, I was more interested in a subjective response to “objective” questions.  Being in truth an artist, I always wanted to express my own ideas, and I found having to footnote and make citations frustrating and often derivative.  Just as an academic paper had to pose a research question and find an answer, I wondered why that couldn’t be done with an emotional question in a story.

So much of what I had seen, superficially, about academic novels involve a professor (usually male and often in the English department) in a midlife crisis and usually having an affair with a female colleague or graduate student.  Or, it involved a professor struggling with his career and marital problems.  To me, this seemed clichéd and the “been there, done that” of academic/campus novels.  Granted, I have only read a handful of books in this genre of writing, and have generally enjoyed these very much—-Lucky Jim, The Professor’s House (by my favorite author Willa Cather), the works of Jhumpa Lahiri (which often revolve around an academic setting), Lolita and Brideshead Revisited (which are nominally “academic”), and I believe I have even read Herzog.  I had begun McEwan’s Solar, as I enjoy his works very much, but somehow I was not able to get through it.  But I felt like there was something often unrepresented in this sub-genre.

Why couldn’t academia be used as a backdrop?  Didn’t academia have emotion to it?  At any given moment on any campus, I knew there were multiple personal questions, dilemmas, and emotions going on simultaneously. There might be an international student in the throes of a love affair with a fellow student, but who has to return home due to a visa’s limitations, while there is an associate professor up for promotion to full, but she is being blocked by colleagues, while there is a provost who has skeletons in his closet, while there is an economics professor who just won the Nobel Prize. Or, to continue the theme, there might be a student suffering from severe anorexia while a law student is deciding about dropping out while an entry-level administrator is having success as an artist.  Why wasn’t anyone writing about this? 

Given this current picture of academia, I felt that a lot of academic novels did not feel accurate:  they simply did not reflect the modern world as I saw it.  I am a member of the 1st post-civil rights/Title IX generation, which means that my generation is arguably the first to be integrated, gender-equal, and diverse.  Also, I have been fortunate to attend universities that are highly global.  My freshman dorm alone had students from Canada, Kuwait, Poland, Sri Lanka, India, Singapore, Spain, and Americans of every stripe and color.  Yes, it is entirely possible that my critics might say I am painting an elitist/ideal/atypical picture of college life in my book.  I can only be true to my own experience, which, I might add, involves coming from a very modest, middle/lower middle class college town.  To quote the funny cliché, “Well, it’s a dirty job, but somebody has to do it!”  American universities are very unique environments rich in a diversity of ideas, if not also types of people, and there is a reason they are renowned all over the world.

I wish to conclude with huge praise for one of my favorite short stories about a professor, which is by—-surprise!  Woody Allen—-called “The Kugelmass Episode,” about a professor of humanities who has an affair with Madame Bovary after being inserted into the novel by a magician.  Not only is it absolutely hilarious and brilliantly clever, but also it is also extremely well written, a good example of the arc of a short story.  So you see, I have had good models in learning how to write shorter pieces that merge academia and the form of the story.  There are always authors who remind us of the richness of the sub-genre of academic literature.