Purdue News

November 2005

Dear Purdue Partners,

In 2002 many American universities – including Purdue – experienced a decrease in the numbers of students from other countries applying to study in the United States. Most of us attributed this change to the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and subsequent increased security measures that made it more difficult for international students to enter our country.

However, as we approach the end the 2005, the decline has continued, and I have come to the conclusion that the international demand to study in American universities has softened for reasons that are far more complex and ominous than the difficulties presented by border security. I believe we are experiencing a global sea change that threatens not only our universities, but also America's security and its economy.

The strength and prosperity of nations in the 21st century will be determined by the level of education of their people, and especially by proficiency in the sciences and engineering. The leaders of every nation, institution and corporation would agree with that statement. And yet other countries are acting on it with a greater sense of urgency than the United States. Twenty years ago the United States, Japan and China each graduated a similar number of engineers. South Korea at that time graduated about half as many. Here is what had happened by the year 2000:

• China had increased its engineering graduates by 161 percent to 207,500;

• Japan had effected a 42 percent increase to 103,200;

• South Korea was graduating 56,500 engineers – an increase of more than 140 percent;

• Indian universities, by conservative estimates, were turning out more than 100,000 engineers annually.

Meanwhile, the number of U.S. engineering graduates had declined 20 percent to fewer than 60,000. If current trends continue, by 2010 more than 90 percent of all scientists and engineers in the world will live in Asia.

These are deeply disturbing numbers, but they are only part of the picture. Students in our middle schools and high schools to an alarming degree are poorly prepared for the math and science they would face in preparing for careers in science or engineering. Even worse, our young people's interest in science and engineering is declining. Purdue's College of Science and College of Engineering both are addressing these problems with outreach programs designed to improve teaching of these disciplines in public schools and stimulate interest among students.

This is a serious national issue. Between 1992 and 2002 the number of college-bound students who planned to study engineering declined by more than 30 percent. At the other end of the continuum, more than half of the U.S. work force in these key disciplines is approaching retirement.

We also are faltering in the crucial area of research, which is the key to fueling economic development. Since 1970 funding for basic research in the physical sciences has declined by half as a percentage of the gross domestic product. While our commitment to fund research in the life sciences has remained relatively strong, the support for advances in math, computer sciences, physical sciences and engineering has not kept up. Other nations – especially in Asia – are increasing their research and education investments with a clear agenda: They want their universities to be the best in the world, and they believe one result of achieving that goal will be economic leadership for their countries.

In the second half of the 20th century, America's position as the global leader in higher education and the development of knowledge was unchallenged. International students flocked to this country to study because our universities were the best. America dominated the Nobel Prize competition because we funded research generously and provided a great environment for discovery. The presence of the best minds from other nations on our campuses only enriched the brew. Many of them studied here and decided to stay, becoming part of the world's greatest research and academic community. Others returned to their homelands and carried the message that America was a great nation and the best place to study.

Is America still the world leader in education and research? Yes, but the commitment of other nations and the speed with which they are taking action are astonishing. We should not be so arrogant as to believe that global leadership is an American birthright. It can only be sustained in the same way it was achieved: through hard work and a determination to invest in ourselves.

My deepest concern about the decline in international enrollments is that these highly talented students may be sensing that the advantages of studying on American campuses no longer are great enough to justify overcoming the obstacles to entering this country. As universities in Asia and Europe improve, they will compete for the best minds in the world. Unless we get better, we lose our position as the world's intellectual leader. The consequences of that are unthinkable.


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