Niall Ferguson is a professor of history at Harvard University. He is also a senior research fellow at Jesus College, Oxford University, and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. His Latest book, Civilization: The West and the Rest, has just been published by Penguin Press.
School is in the air. It is the time of year when millions of apprehensive young people are crammed into their parents’ cars along with all their worldly gadgets and driven off to college.
The rest of the world looks on with envy. American universities are the best in the world—22 out of the world’s top 30, according to the Graduate School of Education at Shanghai Jiao Tong University. Once it was Oxford or Cambridge that bright young Indians dreamed of attending; now it is Harvard or Stanford. Admission to a top U.S. college is the ultimate fast track to the top.
Little do the foreigners know that all is far from well in the groves of American academe.
Let’s start with the cost. According to the College Board, average tuition and fees for in-state residents at a sample of public colleges have soared by 25 percent since 2008–09. A key driver has been the reduction in funding as states have been forced to adopt austerity measures. In the same time frame, tuition and fees at private universities rose by less (13 percent), but still by a lot more than inflation...