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Another Voice: Cross-disciplinary approach elevates U.S. higher education

By Mark Zupan

The United States leads the world in postsecondary education. As evidence, one out of four students studying “abroad” study here, more than double the number drawn by the second and third most popular destinations (the United Kingdom and China).

The two main reasons offered for American higher ed excellence are healthy competition and the number of private schools. While private institutions elsewhere in the world are rare, there are 1,800 private colleges and universities in the United States accounting for one-third of total undergraduate enrollments.

Are private institutions drivers of educational quality? Unquestionably! According to the latest U.S. News and World Report ranking, 19 of the top 20 national universities are private.

David Epstein’s latest book, “Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World,” suggests three other reasons for American higher ed impact: our institutions allow students to sample an array of educational programs; make it easier for students to shift majors; and offer greater opportunity for interdisciplinary work.

We welcome “undecided” students while students in other countries often are required to choose an academic specialization while still in high school. Such rigidity inhibits what economists call match quality – the degree to which training aligns with individuals’ abilities and passions.

We seek to enhance match quality at Alfred University through our Applied/Experiential, or APEX, program, providing students financial grants to support co-ops, internships, study abroad and research opportunities.

American institutions allow students to more readily change their major. Woe be students in Shanghai or Berlin who discover engineering is not for them and seek to switch to environmental science or business.

In addition, the ability to pursue multiple cross-disciplinary majors is limited abroad. That is why American institutions excel in fields like behavioral economics, biomedical engineering, data analytics and design thinking.

At Alfred University, students combine work in fields as diverse as ceramic engineering, glass science, art and design and business. Such combinations are next to impossible in Japan or France.

Universities are ideal settings for students to learn from each other and hone their understanding and values that will shape them for the remainder of their lives.

America’s postsecondary schools are primed to outcompete our global counterparts by capitalizing on the rich range at the core of our DNA. To the extent that we do, we will continue to lead the world in producing better-prepared, balanced graduates.

Mark Zupan is the president of Alfred University.

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