By the time you read this, I should be in west-central China trying to sleep-off an 11-hour jet lag. This is trip number 19 to Asia, counting the entry stamps in 50 years of passports. During that time I have taught in schools in mainland China and Hong Kong, visited schools in Taiwan and worked with fellow teachers from Singapore, South Korea and Japan. No region of the world values education and respects teachers more than East Asia. Even if you are poor but educated, you are honored as a scholar.
We know this when we take our children to Asia and find they are several years behind grade level. And when East Asian families move to the United States, their children are often one or two grade levels advanced. While American-born populations are barely above 40 percent in college graduation, Asian-American students are already completing college degrees at 60 percent.
So the Lumina Foundation and educational leaders set the goal of 60 percent or more of the U.S. working population reaching or exceeding a tertiary education by 2025.
I taught in Hong Kong 1975-78 and my students from the affluent corporate and consular communities were high performing. But their study ethic was kicked a level higher by the one-third of Chinese students attending that international school. Since then, Hong Kong overbuilt their university capacity. About 15 years ago, Hong Kong found their college-going population to “top out” at below 60 percent of their high school graduates. And that included tertiary technical schools. So they opened up their empty university seats to mainland students who faced a shortage of higher education facilities.
Taiwan overbuilt university capacity 10 years ago and found empty seats when they approached the same 60 percent graduation level. Taiwan is now undergoing a dramatic downsizing and consolidating its universities.
South Korea has also rapidly grown its university capacity and sure enough, having overbuilt for 60 percent of their high school graduates, they are now desperately recruiting foreign students.
And just last year, Thailand found itself with more university seats than qualified students and is facing downsizing of its higher education campuses.
Singapore is an exception to this 60 percent wall. Singapore is well below zero population growth (ZPG). So it is actively recruiting the best students from surrounding countries and especially China. Singapore offers free tuition to incoming students who score high; but these students must then reside in Singapore after graduation for the same number of years they took free tuition. This pushes their level of college-degreed population to the highest in the world. But they are paying to import them from the surrounding regions, causing a brain drain on those other countries.
All of these Asian countries use high stakes tests for coursework and gatekeeping. They have no intention of diluting the academic value of their high school diplomas or their college degrees by lowering their performance standards or rigor of coursework.
But in the United States, in our panic to reach higher rates of college graduation, we are accepting high school dual-credit and other questionable coursework without test confirmation. We are letting a one-day test score replace a semester of coursework in “competency-based” learning in both the G.E.D and at Western Governor’s “University.” If the American public wants 60 percent of high school graduates to go on to college, our educational system is quite able to lower the bar and graduate anyone.
Our tuition-driven public colleges are moving toward accepting every student with a heartbeat and a credit card. Pressure to inflate grades and lower standards is evident from kindergarten to graduate school.
For several years now, international education conferences in Europe and Asia openly discuss whether the U.S. public university degree is losing value. Despite the ITT and Corinthian debacles, our online diploma mills are expanding. High school graduation rates keep going up while test scores fall.
The lesson from Asia is that about 40 percent of our youth have neither the ability nor desire to complete genuine college level work. Efforts to force our system to go beyond the 60 percent level simply water downs or destroys the value of a bona fide degree.