APPLES AND ORANGES: USING JAPAN TO INFLUENCE AMERICAN HIGHER EDUCATION POLICY AND INCREASE GRADUATION RATES
President Obama’s 2020 Initiative to increase the number of Americans with tertiary education is as ambitious as it seems untenable. Few would argue with the substance of the initiative, which calls for better alignment of the secondary and higher education systems as well as support for non-traditional students who have a difficult time re-enrolling in tertiary programs after many years away from school. There are even provisions easing student transfer between institutions and reducing the need for remedial education through increased college preparedness training throughout the U.S. secondary school system. The legislation assumes that through these enhancements, quality and rigor will be increased, university graduation rates can be improved and America can regain its position as the most “educated” nation in the world.
The problem with this legislation is not so much with its vision as it is with its singular operating assumption: America, as number eight on the OECD list of most educated nations (with 42 per cent of its population holding tertiary certifications), is losing its competitive edge to more educated nations in an increasingly competitive global economy. East Asian nations have often intrigued the west due to their superior performance on international standardized math and science examinations, and so it is perhaps not a surprise to many in the west that Korea and Japan place higher on the OECD list of tertiary degree-granting nations (number one and three, respectively). When the results of these tests are made known each year, many American politicians and legislators reignite their criticism of the American education system and predict a precipitous demise of their global competitiveness.
With Obama’s ambitious plan, it is unclear how the U.S. can increase the number of graduates while at the same time increasing the system’s overall quality and rigor. In addition to the dubious belief that everyone is intellectually capable of entering and completing college, the 2020 Initiative seems to assume that an American education is of a lower quality than that of nations higher on the list by the mere fact that America confers fewer degrees. In order to fully investigate the claim that America is losing its competitive edge to these nations, it is instructive to take a closer look at the education landscape of those countries that place higher on the list. Such an investigation could help to determine if America really has much to lose by placing behind them. This paper will look at one of the Asian nations placing ahead of America, Japan, as the authors are intimately familiar with that system having worked within it for 15 years.