Monday, September 20, 2010

The fortune at the bottom of the higher education pyramid

Daniel Griswold, Director of the Center for Trade Policy Studies at the Cato Institute, spoke at Westminster last week about his new book, Mad About Trade.  The talk was part of our Weldon J. Taylor Executive Lecture Series, and it was pitched perfectly for the audience--a mixture of students, faculty, and community members interested in global issues and connected to the Utah Council for Citizen Diplomacy, our partner in the lecture series.

Most of Griswold's talk focused on the benefits of global trade, but he made a passing comment that has had me thinking ever since.  He noted that while the cost of many things produced in a global system has declined rapidly (think TVs, computers, etc.), the cost of things impervious to global trade has risen rapidly. And of course the two industries that make this case are health care and higher education.

The general recipe for driving down the cost of things in global trade is the reduction of trade barriers.  And there are certainly barriers to trade in higher education, most particularly the quotas and visa system that make it difficult for international students to study in the US (and vice versa) because they cannot get access to higher ed here.

But it is my sense that the main barrier is the unwillingness of American higher education to look at the right markets.  Where American colleges and universities do make international partnerships, they tend to target the upper third of the pyramid--those people who have already become part of the global middle class and can therefore afford something like a full-ticket American education.

You can see this approach both in the partnerships that US universities make globally--the NYU campus in Abu Dhabi, for example; or Yale's foray into creating a liberal arts college in Singapore--and in the international students that US campuses recruit.

In doing this American higher ed overlooks the huge changes in the developing world.  There are dozens, but four that stand out are these:
  • the pace of urbanization is picking up in the developing world, and with it the amassing of millions of people in close proximity to each other,
  • the cities of the developing world are showing signs of increased vitality and creativity, most particularly in those sections settled by squatters,
  • squatter cities have shown themselves to be tremendous economic engines--that is there are fortunes at the bottom of the pyramid-- and to be much greener than older cities, small towns, or suburbs--that is, a sustainable future depends on the ability of humans to live successfully in cities (see Stewart Brand's Whole Earth Discipline: An Eco-pragmatist Manifesto for a clear account of the vitality of squatter cities),
  • and one engine of economic improvement and social well-being are schools in those cities, organized and paid for by parents.
 Last year I highlighted James Tooley's The Beautiful Tree: A Personal Journey into how the World's Poor are Educating Themselves. Tooley's story is that of the emergence of educationally and economically successful primary schools in the developing world.  American higher education ought to be asking itself if it can play a role both in advancing those successful primary schools and in helping to develop low-cost colleges and universities for the same people.

Such schools would both help colleges and universities live out their commitment to helping people and their communities build better lives, and help colleges and universities figure out how to do their work less expensively, while maintaining the quality that we are justly renowned for.

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