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The Factory of Knowledge: Patterns and Trends
in the US Higher Education

Philip G. Altbach
Interview by Massimo Gelardi

The US higher education is a very complex and heterogeneous system. However, can you identify some important features and trends in the overall system?

One of the great strengths of the US system is that it is highly differentiated – that is, there are different kinds of institutions with different missions, different patterns of funding, etc. This permits many groups to be served. Not all universities are research universities – indeed only perhaps 200 or so out of more than 3,000 are research universities. The community college system at the bottom of the US higher education system is also very valuable because it permits a more or less “open door” for students to enter the system and if they do well, they can transfer to four-year universities. Diversity of funding is also a strength – state funding (which has unfortunately declined) is combined with private funding, student tuition and fees, and other sources.

Fairness, merit, and the benefits of diversity are important issues in American higher education. What do you think about the race conscious admission policies in universities and colleges? What should be their aims and their limits (if any)? What are the current beliefs about race and opportunity?

This is a very complex issue and the situation is changing. I myself believe that race can be taken into account in admissions, and also in hiring for faculty jobs, but that there should be limits on how much this is used. There is a growing opinion in the American public that race conscious admissions is a bad policy and several states have passed laws against it. So far, the higher education community remains pretty much in favour of affirmative action. But the issues are both complicated and controversial.

Affirmative action is a question of just representation. What about the multicultural education? To what extent has been a diverse pedagogy accomplished (in teachers, learners, curricula, methods)? And what is its impact on the social structure (education, labor market, culture in a broad sense)?

Many US universities have multicultural education programs, departments of African-American Studies and so on. But in general multicultural education has not transformed higher education – the curriculum remains rather traditional. The proportions of racial and ethnic groups in the student population, and also in the work force, have increased, but minorities are still underrepresented in the more prestigious universities and also in the more prestigious (and higher paying) professions.

In the higher education class membership seems to matter more than ever. Moreover, the fact that a conspicuous part of young people can’t attend the college (and just a slight minority of young people can access the institutions of excellence) is taken for granted. Is there room today for a concept of education as a democratic public sphere and as a means of change and equality?

It is true that gaining an academic degree is increasingly important for success in life – degree holders make more money, live longer, and according to many studies, are more happy and in better health. It is also true that there is more competition for admission to the most prestigious colleges and universities. There is a general acceptance in the US that higher education should be available to everyone who has the ability to benefit from it. But there is also a belief that the top of the system is highly competitive.

The US is generally seen as the world’s best academic system. How accurate is this picture? In your view, what should the European higher education system learn from the US one?

The top of the US system is probably the best in the world, at least concerning masters and doctoral study and research. But the entire US system is not overall the best in the world. That is in my view appropriate because all universities cannot be as good as Harvard or Berkeley. What the Europeans can learn is that the US higher education system is differentiated, with institutions with different missions and aimed at students of different abilities. The universities are funded differently also. This in my view is a major lesson of the US system. Europeans should not assume that all of American higher education is top quality. And Europeans need to develop their own ways of meeting the challenges of the 21st century.

What kind of autonomy does a research mostly funded by private gifts (or politically oriented) enjoy? And what kinds of control and responsibilities should its activity meet?

In fact, most scientific research in the US is funded by the government through agencies like the National Science Foundation and the Defense Department and also by industries, and not by private foundations. There is very little research funding that is politically oriented in a direct way. In my view, the great problem is that more and more of research funding is linked to commercial or other applied purposes and there is less funding for basic research. In the long run, this will weaken American higher education.

You talked about the internationalization of higher education as a consequence of the rise of knowledge society prompted by globalization. Can you tell more about the implications of these dynamics?

A sophisticated discussion of globalization and higher education requires a long response. But briefly, universities, especially research universities, are part of an international knowledge system more than ever before and must adjust to it. This means increasing use of English, more cross-border competition for students and staff, and the like.

What did you mean by «Racial Crisis in American Higher Education»[1]?

What we meant when we edited that book was to point out that there are still problems with race relations in US higher education – it is a kind of “slow crisis” of campus-based race relations, inequalities in admissions, and related themes. Since we edited the book, campus race relations have actually improved quite a lot.

One of the books you co-edited, In Defense of American Higher Education[2], is useful – as a review stated – «to balance the wave of criticism now so prevalent in the field». In what sense do you consider ungrounded that criticism?

Our purpose in that book was to point out that there are many positive elements in American higher education. It may be surprising to foreigners, but most of the public discussion about higher education within the US is critical – pointing out the problems of the US system. There are many problems, but our view is that the system as a whole is pretty good.

Interview given on November 27, 2007


[1] P.G. ALTBACH, K. LOMOTEY, W. SMITH (eds.), The Racial Crisis in American Higher Education, State University of New York Press, Albany (NY) 2002 [revised edition, first edition published in 1991].
[2] P.G. ALTBACH, P.J. GUMPORT, D.B. JOHNSTONE (eds.), In Defense of American Higher Education, Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore (MD) 2001.
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