Editor’s Note: As a follow-up to the “American Underachievement” article in the Nov./Dec. issue of the Charger, this article details the positive aspects of education today in America

A bright spot in American education is college. Of the top 15 world universities as ranked by the U.S. News and World Report, 11 are in the U.S.; the other four are British, including Oxford and Cambridge. Over 700,000 international students study at colleges all across America; desperate to gain acceptance to an American university, some Asian students even resort to bribing test officials to inflate their test scores.

Dr. Douglass Sullivan-Gonzalez is dean of the Sally McDonnell Honors College at the University of Mississippi. He says that two fundamental notions – ideas and opportunities –make American universities and colleges exceptional.

“Our higher education system has evolved to challenge the economic and political status quo of the world, and to create opportunity for all peoples,” he said. “The free exchange of ideas matters; ideas can move the proverbial mountains.”

Sullivan-Gonzalez credits the arts as a benchmark for a society of free creativity, and says that in the U.S. the arts are bolstered by volunteerism.

“From the contribution of financial resources to the commitment of artists, conductors, instrumentalists, and museum directors, these marines of creativity defend the fundamentals that we unleash in the workplace,” Sullivan-Gonzalez said. “That freedom of reach opens new avenues of thought, and undercuts any and all monopolies of purported truth that would stifle the search for truth.”

The emphasis on creativity, however, begins in high school. Math teacher Edward Page says that he teaches students how to be better “critical-thinkers.”

“The world does not need another who can memorize the quadratic formula,“ he said. “The world needs people who can use the quadratic formula to solve problems.”

Regarding high school education, Page says that it is a positive sign that the U.S. is “coming to grips with (its) declining scores when compared against other countries, and (realizing) that the system is lagging behind what it once was.”

“(However), when state budgets get tight, one of the first items cut is the education budget,” he said. “This tells me that although we recognize the issue, no one is sure what the problem is.”

Sullivan-Gonzalez fears that states have begun to default on their public commitment to post-secondary education, with public universities quickly becoming private institutions by default, especially with regard to cost.

“The last two states who heavily subsidized public education were Fla. and Calif.,” he said. “With the subprime meltdown of 2008, both of those states joined the rest of the nation in shifting the burden of costs to the individuals.”

For example, in 1979, the Univ. of Miss. received from the state 64.7 percent of its core on-campus general educational costs while tuition and fees accounted for 32 percent.

“At the end of our last fiscal year (June 2011), the state only provided for 25.3 percent of that cost while tuition and fees paid for 63 percent,” Sullivan-Gonzalez said. “With the current debate in Washington D.C. and in Jackson, Miss. focused on cost-cutting measures, I doubt we will see any reversal of this change in the near future.”

Still, he is optimistic about the future of the U.S. as an educational powerhouse.

“U.S. education always holds in tension both the drive for an immersion in liberal arts to understand our complex world and the need for a technical skill to market,” he said. “Also, the numbers are on our side: (the U.S. has) a growing population – not a declining birthrate – and a creative synergy that respects innovation, pragmatism, and hard work.”