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American higher education

With a doctoral degree in chemical engineering in hand, I decided to immigrate to the United States in the late 1960s from the United Kingdom because of three key attributes about America: Its top university system, its moon-reaching technological prowess and its booming, low-unemployment economy.

Today, disconcertingly, there are a number of signs that the U.S. university system is in decline, even while these other attributes continue to flourish.

One measure of the health of higher education is total enrollment. As Jon Marcus recently wrote in The Hechinger Report, for the sixth straight year enrollment at U.S. colleges and universities has dropped.

Related: University enrollment decline continues into sixth straight year

In the fall of 2017, there were 2.6 million fewer students enrolled in higher-education programs than there were in the fall of 2011. This is a worrying and precipitous decline.

Another measure of the health of U.S. higher education is the quality of colleges and universities, which are measured by various ranking systems. The Times Higher Education/ World University Ranking ranked, for the first time in 12 years, a non-U.S. institution — Oxford University — as the best in the world in 2016-17.

And in the 2018 rankings, Oxford University remained number one, while the University of Cambridge ranked second (jumping from fourth place in 2016-17). European institutions now occupy three of the top 10 spots and half of the top 200 places in this ranking system.

There are many factors contributing to this educational decline in the United States but perhaps the most important of them is student preparedness.

Various studies indicate that since about 2000, the preparedness of our graduates to enter the global economy has deteriorated, especially in literacy, numeracy and problem-solving skills required by a global, innovation-based economy. According to Joseph Fuller, a Harvard Business School professor, our students’ literacy and numerical skills have declined over the last two decades.

These trends are confirmed by a 2012 survey conducted by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, which showed that the U.S. scored second to last among Western developed countries in technology-based problem-solving skills.

Equally unsettling, about a third of college seniors in a large sample of U.S. institutions were deficient in the key attributes of critical thinking as measured by the latest Collegiate Assessment Plus test.

Perhaps even more worrisome is a 2016 report from the National Center for Education Statistics that indicates U.S. college graduates are lagging behind other industrial countries in using digital technology to solve problems. If we don’t improve the critical-reasoning skills of our graduates — analytical reasoning and problem-solving skills required in today’s global and dynamic marketplace — we will lose our ability to compete in the world economy.

Related: Universities and colleges struggle to stem big drops in enrollment

So what other factors are at work in this educational demise? U.S. college students and their families contend with two major, interrelated challenges that are well known: affordability and access. Increasing tuition costs, decreasing state budget support and rising student debt are reducing the attractiveness of a college education in the U.S. But there are other factors as well, including a growing concern about access to higher education.

A recent study by the Young Invincibles showed that, while the number of individuals with degrees increased from 1974 to 2015 among all groups, racial disparities have widened.

The analysis illustrated that in 1974, 14 percent of white students, 5.5 percent of black students and 5.5 percent of Hispanic students had completed four years of college.

In 2015, 36.2 percent of white students, 22.5 percent of black students and 15.5 percent of Hispanic students had completed four years of college. While more black and Hispanic students had earned degrees, the gap between white students and black and Hispanic students has grown over the past four decades.

Recently, college campuses across the nation have witnessed an exciting awakening in the importance of diversity and social justice, but in the wake of recent student discourse on campus, it appears that more work needs to be done.

There are rays of light in these dark clouds, however.

These same studies show that some of the biggest gains in critical thinking occur at smaller colleges, where students’ experiences are enriched by challenging curricula and transformative student-faculty interactions.

As the president of a small private university, I have seen this firsthand. I have also seen more public-private partnerships aimed at improving our educational systems.

Philanthropic foundations and private industry are supporting their neighborhood schools and colleges. The U.S. is still the world leader in philanthropy, and its “can-do” philosophy remains unmatched. These may well be the critical attributes that help turn the tide.

I look to the future with optimism and excitement while at the same time recognizing the reality that we have a tough road ahead of us in restoring the U.S. higher education system to the best in the world.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up here for our newsletter.

Dr. David Steele-Figueredo is president of Woodbury University in Burbank, Calif.

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