Coming to America

Today marks a return to an occasional series on higher education in the U.S., with a post co-authored with an esteemed colleague, Sally Gomaa. She attended graduate school in the U.S., works as a university professor, and is now a naturalized citizen.

Are you from outside the U.S. and considering academic employment here? Does a graduate program in the humanities or social sciences seem attractive because of an expectation that it will get you hired by a U.S. university? If you are wondering if job prospects in academia are better here than at home, they probably are not. The economic foundations of tertiary education in the U.S. are undergoing a long-term transformation that has greatly diminished everyone’s chances of a stable and rewarding career as a professor.

Education in the U.S. reflects the country’s penchant for local autonomy in the provision of public goods. Although the national government imposes certain legal burdens on all  of the country’s colleges and universities, there are no league table rankings or formal budgetary outlays toward the costs of instruction. Instead, the national government helps students defray the cost of their undergraduate educations by guaranteeing loans at subsidized rates. Only universities that are deemed in good standing by private, regionally-based accreditation organizations can enroll students who receive this federal aid.

Public universities do receive a portion of their operating funds from state governments via tax revenue. But there has been a decades-long disinvestment in higher education at the state level, and legislative allocations now comprise less than ten percent of the budget at many public university systems. The decisions of elected officials in states such as Illinois, Louisiana, and Wisconsin have significantly degraded the quality of public universities in those states. If you are thinking about applying for a faculty position at a public university campus, it is wise to investigate the financial treatment of that campus by its state government overlords.

Private institutions are not directly funded by state legislatures, making them more expensive to attend than the publics. However, most students at private universities do not pay the full price of tuition—students are enticed to enroll through tuition discounting. The higher the tuition discount, the weaker the relationship between a university’s enrollment and its financial well-being. Any private college or university with an endowment of less than US$100 million, fewer than two thousand undergraduates, and a rising average tuition discount is financially unsound.

Private universities often treat their discount rates like proprietary trade secrets, but you can get a general sense of their financial health by looking at figures on admissions yield, retention rate, and the percentage of full-time undergraduate students receiving Pell grants, which are federal grants awarded to students coming from low-income backgrounds. Pell grants are small and their recipients are relatively poor. The more Pell recipients are attending a university, the more that university will have to discount its tuition—unless it has a billion dollar endowment, which few universities do. Socioeconomically disadvantaged students are also those most at risk of drop out and transfer—a high proportion of Pell grant recipients in a university’s total enrollment will frequently correspond to a lousy retention rate.

Data that can give you a sense of a university’s relative market position and financial health are at the U.S. government’s Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System and College Scorecard.

In addition to the public and private four-year institutions, there are the public community colleges, which enroll approximately forty percent of all undergraduate students in the U.S. These institutions award vocational certifications and two-year degrees. Some now also offer bachelor’s degrees in certain fields. Because community colleges are state-supported, in many cases they face the same budget problems as four-year public universities.

A non-U.S. citizen needs an employer-obtained H1B visa to work at a university in the U.S. Small, unprestigious institutions often are reluctant to expend the time and money to hire someone who needs a visa, especially if the position in question is in a field saturated with homegrown job-seekers. The visa requirement also means that institutions will not consider a foreign applicant for a non-permanent position, whether it is full-time, like “visiting assistant professor,” or part-time. Since a contingent labor force now teaches somewhere between two-thirds and three-quarters of all undergraduate courses (a.k.a. modules in U.K. parlance), the visa hurdle greatly constrains your options.

Salaries for the shrinking number of permanent full-time faculty positions in the U.S. vary wildly by geographic location, as do differences in the cost of living. A starting salary of US$50,000 for a tenure-stream position in Oklahoma or Arkansas will allow you to get the mortgage needed to purchase a three-bedroom home with a swimming pool in the backyard. The same salary in New York City or San Francisco mean you’ll be sharing a flat with strangers or commuting up to two hours. A salary that is advertised as “competitive” is only competitive with the salaries paid to academics in the same field in the same geographic region.

Finally, consider the costs to your psyche of migrating to a different culture. Americans are generally friendly, helpful, and prefer to avoid confrontation. Yet often they also lead insular, isolated lives—constantly busy with little to show for it, and unaware of the possibility that differing perspectives may exist. Opportunities for social interaction can be limited, and they frequently involve wasteful consumption when they do occur. Conversely, if you are invited to someone’s house for a visit, eat before you arrive. The notion that hospitality includes the offer of food and drink is lost on many Americans.

How is this culture reflected by a classroom full of U.S. undergraduates? Unless you are employed at one of the most prestigious institutions in the country, expect to meet resistance to learning that requires independent effort. And even at elite schools, grades are the coin of the realm. Commonly the instructor is thought of as a lesser version of the parent—an authority figure whom, as teenagers, they tend to disregard and disrespect. Your accent is charming until someone gets a grade of B or C; then the party is over. Over the last few decades, children in the U.S. have been coddled by being taught by their parents and elementary school teachers that they are special; by the time they are young adults, critical evaluation of their performance poses an existential threat. This phenomenon can greatly complicate the pedagogical use of humor; you might have to explain why material is ironic or absurd and not necessarily representative of reality. Don’t accept their apparent will to ignorance, though. If you demand good or at least adequate work, most will rise to the challenge and produce it.

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