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Global Competition: America’s Underrepresented Minorities Will Be Left Behind

by Mehmet Dali Öztürk - June 11, 2007

This commentary presents a global, nonplutocratic, yet autological perspective on American higher education, international competition and its effects on underrepresented minorities in the United States. Despite its advanced level and global dominance, American higher education faces critical challenges. Difficulties in the U.S. national production of competitive talent from the domestic population may lead to policies that encourage the importation of high human capital from the global talent pool. Such policies may also allow America’s minority achievement gap in education to persist indefinitely and leave U.S. minorities ill-prepared to compete effectively in the global economy.


National origin, socio economic status, racial, ethnic, cultural, and gender identities among others (to some, also genetics) may play a critical role in people’s personal, professional, and social lives in the United States as well as many parts of the world. Background characteristics heavily influence an individual’s worldview, way of thinking, and approaches to dealing with life issues. Hence, I “reveal” my background to help the reader better understand my perspective.  Like many people in the U.S., I possess multiple identities and fit into several categories defined by public and private entities.  I am a middle class male, a young professional, and a new parent.  I also am a product of globalization, having been born and raised in Turkey, received my Bachelor’s degree in Turkey and my graduate training in the U.S. As such, I have roots that include “soon-to-be new European” (with Turkey’s successful entry into the European Union), Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, Southwest Asian, and Anatolian influences.  My current frame of thinking and perspectives on global issues are heavily affected by these characteristics, some by birth and others acquired through life experiences.  


I grew up in a part of the world, which has not yet achieved the level of advancement achieved by the U.S. and a number of other industrialized societies in science, technology, social, and economic development.  I not only thought that “advanced” societies would not have significant problems of inequity which exist in many developing nations, but that problems that did exist would be minimal.  However, my personal and professional experiences in the U.S. have made me realize that this belief of mine has been a naïve one.  

I have always had an “intrinsic preference” (Cassidy, 2006) for fairness and justice within a global context. However, I am often awakened by extrinsic world realities that many prefer to avoid. We live in a world where there will always be groups whose background characteristics, beliefs and values place them in undesirable and disadvantaged conditions. In other words, every society whether advanced, developing, or less developed, inevitably produces segments that are marginalized and less advantaged compared to other parts of its social structure.

The issues of equity and equality have universal validity. In an ideal world, there would be no inequality. However, the world we live in has different realities for different societies, which all face crucial social and economic challenges. Across the globe, inequities exist in many aspects of life, especially in the areas of health, education, and welfare. Disparities exist in health and social services even in Sweden, everyone’s favorite benchmark country (Diderichsen, 1990 and Wamala et al, 2006).  Indeed, a recent special report in The Economist (September 9-15, 2006), a respected weekly British newspaper, questioned The Swedish Model’s effectiveness.  Certainly, this may cause disappointment to those who believe that equality is achievable if a country’s resources are sufficiently affluent. Hence, seeing a wealthy, less populated, relatively homogenous nation reporting social and economic problems may discourage many from understanding the depth of inequalities that exist in highly populated, heterogeneous, and low-income societies.


In attracting intellectual talent from around the globe as well as attracting other valuable resources to campuses, the American higher education system is arguably the most effective in the world. The talent, knowledge, skills and other resources which American universities have access to enable them to compete effectively in addressing the most pressing social, economic and civic problems that may exist locally, nationally, and globally.

American higher education’s global presence is strongly felt across continents. As was Albert Einstein several decades ago, many of the world’s highly skilled individuals and brilliant minds are still attracted to the U.S, especially to its centers of higher learning. Cases in point: 70% of the world’s Nobel prize-winners are currently employed by American universities (The Economist, 2005). Moreover, according to the Survey of Earned Doctorates, an annual census of new doctorate recipients in the U.S., approximately one third of the doctorate degrees granted by American universities go to non-U.S. citizens who are in the U.S. on temporary visas. In the field of engineering, foreign students earn most of the doctorates. Only about one third of these degrees go to U.S. citizens (NORC, 2005).

The highly competitive intellectual talent not only comes from developing nations, where economic prospects and technological capacities for advancement are expected to be limited, but also from developed nations. For example, Time Europe in 2004 reported that more than 400,000 of Europe’s graduates in science and technology live in the U.S. In addition to this group of highly educated individuals, the best and the brightest of the world are also attracted to the U.S. For instance, an estimated 40-80 percent of Europe’s “star” PhDs (those who rank in the top 5 percent) are in the U.S. (Saint-Paul, 2004).

The environment that has been created after the unfortunate tragedies caused by the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, may have slowed the pace of the level of attracting top talent and resources from around the world. However, American higher education continues to be the leader in the world. For example, in 2004, American universities dominated the top ten list of the World University Rankings, a new ranking of top 200 universities worldwide (Times Higher Education Supplement, 2004). Similarly, according to the most recent annual Academic Rankings of World Universities, which is annually produced by the Institute of Higher Education, Shanghai Jiao Tong University in China (SJTU), the top 50 universities in the world are overwhelmingly American (74%). In addition, students from around the world want to attend American universities. According to the Open Doors report, which is published annually by the Institute of International Education (IIE) on international students, in 2005, more than 565,000 foreign students enrolled in U.S. colleges and universities (IIE, 2005).


Despite its advanced level and global dominance, American higher education faces critical challenges. The trends and challenges which America’s higher education institutions must address are identified by several influential, relatively recent reports such as Rising Above the Gathering Storm by the National Academies (2005); the Secretary of Education's Commission on the Future of Higher Education’s report, A Test of Leadership: Charting the Future of U.S. Higher Education (2006); and Trends in Higher Education (2006) by the Society for College and University Planning (SCUP). The challenges include a number of issues such as production of graduates in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) majors, uses of technology, enrollment growth, financial aid, campus diversity, and student access.

What is missing among the reported challenges that America’s higher education is facing is a clear and deeper understanding of the under representation and underachievement of African American, Hispanic and Native American students at higher education institutions. Furthermore, while White and Asian Americans are extremely well represented, African American, Hispanic and Native Americans are acutely under represented among the highest academic achievers at the nation’s most prestigious/elite, selective institutions.

Minority underachievement has its roots in the early stages of the American education system. The achievement gaps among America’s ethnic and racial groups exist from kindergarten to graduate school across all SES levels (Reardon & Galindo, 2006; Cole & Barber, 2003; Bowen & Bok, 1998; Bowen, Kurzweil, Tobin, & Pichler, 2005; Sander, 2005; Miller, Öztürk & Chavez, 2005; and Ozturk, 2005). Achievement gaps persist at all levels of American social strata (including underrepresented minority groups from high SES backgrounds), and have been documented through numerous local (state tests), national (National Assessment of Educational Progress: NAEP), and international (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study: TIMMS/Programme for International Student Assessment: PISA) measurement systems. The achievement gap is also evidenced by standardized tests administered at different levels of the education system (such as Early Childhood Longitudinal Study-Kindergarten: ECLS-K, NAEP, American College Test: ACT, Scholastic Aptitude Test: SAT, Law School Admissions Test: LSAT and Graduate Record Examinations: GRE). The evidence is undeniable as well as sad and depressing.

Historically, the achievement gap has existed for more than several decades. Although some progress in closing the gap is being made, progress is not consistent for all minority groups. In some areas, it may even be widening. A recent report by the Education Trust suggests that gaps in college-going and college completion for students of minority and low-income background are wider than they were 30 years ago (Haycock, 2006).

A deeper understanding of the level of competitiveness America’s underrepresented minority students must gain while they are being prepared for the real world is critical. Systems strategies must be utilized to produce change in all segments of society, at all levels of SES, all ethnic/racial groups, and all educational levels. Strategies must be long-term.  If proper action is not taken in a timely manner, the problem will persist indefinitely and the achievement gap will only widen.


The effects of global competitiveness will be felt at different levels for the different segments of American society in which level and quality of education promote social mobility and give access to greater opportunities in life.  The persistent achievement gaps among underrepresented groups will severely limit minority access to competitive jobs and leadership positions that require advanced skills and knowledge. Their ability to compete globally with their peers for the positions and places in their respected fields that require the level of highest selectivity will be affected.

Compared with the students of other developed nations, U.S. students rank in the middle on direct assessment of skills and knowledge in critical subjects and grades (Wagner, 2006). Examination of upper secondary education graduation rates of OECD countries indicates that the United States falls below the OECD average. However, students in predominantly White populated states (such as North Dakota, Iowa, Vermont, and Wisconsin) achieve at or above the OECD average (Edweek, 2006). It is also possible to find studies that show comparable results for White and Asian student achievement in international performance comparisons. In math, science, reading, and problem solving areas, U.S. White, and Asian students score higher than the OECD average; Hispanic and Black students, however, score below US White and Asian students as well as below the OECD average (Lemke, Sen, Pahlke, et al, 2004). The evidence suggests that America’s underrepresented groups are ill-prepared to compete effectively in the global economy.

To maintain its ability to compete globally, the U.S. has to attract (import) international talent and improve its production of domestic talent by closing the achievement gap and increasing the level of academic performance of the underrepresented minorities.


America’s efforts in successful representation of its high achieving minorities will be critical to global competition and dealing with the world issues that require deeper, universal understanding, which facilitates global engagement.

White and Asian communities in the U.S. will continue to produce the most successful beneficiaries of the academic competition, which has been an integral part of the meritocratic tradition in the U.S. requiring selection of leadership based on intellectual achievement.  However, preferential treatment (such as “legacies” and affirmative action) in college and university admissions policies may challenge the fundamental nature of this principled tradition.  If an effective mechanism is not developed in a timely manner to help America’s under represented groups achieve a high level of academic performance, some communities in the U.S. will inevitably be left behind in social, political, and economic advancement.

Difficulties in the U.S. national production of competitive talent from the domestic population may lead to policies that encourage the importation of high quality human capital from the global talent pool, which currently has been finding expanded opportunities of migration worldwide. Furthermore, by providing greater opportunities for all groups in the U.S. as well as foreign nationals, and taking advantage of a diverse intellectual talent pool that is active in engaging globally, American higher education can accelerate the creation and production of universal knowledge, which contributes to the “greater good.”

Consequently, American higher education has the potential and the capacity to be a friendly force and an active advocate for social equity and equality domestically as well as internationally. Enabling individuals from all segments of society contributes to efforts in creating universal knowledge that benefit humanity; this may be challenging, sluggish, costly, and painful. However, achieving a noble, lofty goal of social justice at a satisfactory level, which the world desperately needs, can be priceless.


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Bowen, W. G., Kurzweil, M. A., Tobin, E. M., & Pichler, S. C. (2005). Equity and Excellence in American Higher Education. University of Virginia Press. Charlottesville, VA  ISBN 0-8139-2557-6.

Cassidy, J. (2006) What neuroeconomics tells us about money and the brain.

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Time Europe (January 13th 2004). How to Plug Europe’s Brain Drain.

Haycock, K. (2006) Promise Abandoned: How Policy Choices and Institutional Practices Restrict College Opportunities. A Report by the Education Trust, August 2006.


Institute of International Education (IIE) (2005) Open Doors 2005: International Students in the United States.  http://opendoors.iienetwork.org/?p=69736

Lemke, M., Sen, A., Pahlke, E., Partelow, L., Miller, D., Williams, T., Kastberg, D., and Jocelyn, L. (2004). International Outcomes of Learning in Mathematics Literacy and Problem Solving: PISA 2003 Results From the U.S. Perspective (NCES 2005-003). U.S. Department of Education. Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics.


Miller L. S. (with Öztürk, M. D., & Chavez, L.). (2005). Increasing African American, Latino, and Native American representation among high achieving undergraduates at selective colleges and universities. Berkeley: University of California, Berkeley, Institute for the Study of Social Change.


NORC (2005). Doctorate Recipients from United States Universities: Summary Report 2004. Survey of Earned Doctorates. NSF/NIH/USED/NEH/USDA/NASA


Ozturk, M. (Summer 2005). The Evidence Base for Increasing High Achieving Minority Undergraduates. The Evaluation Exchange, Harvard Family Research Project, Harvard Graduate School of Education; (Volume XI. No. 2, Summer 2005).


Reardon, S.F. & Galindo, C. (2006). Patterns of Hispanic Students’ Math and English Literacy Test Scores in the Early Elementary Grades.  A Report to the National Task Force on Early Childhood Education for Hispanics. September 2006.

Saint-Paul, G. (2004) "The Brain Drain: Some Evidence from European Expatriates in the US," CEPR Discussion Papers 4680, C.E.P.R. Discussion Papers.


Sander, R. H. (2005). A systematic evaluation of affirmative action in American law schools. Stanford Law Review, 57(3), 376–483.

Wagner, A. (2006) Measuring Up Internationally: Developing Skills and Knowledge for the Global Knowledge Economy. The National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education Report #06-7 September 2006.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: June 11, 2007
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 14518, Date Accessed: 1/25/2022 3:13:50 PM

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About the Author
  • Mehmet Öztürk
    Arizona State University
    E-mail Author
    MEHMET DALI ÖZTURK, a native of Turkey, is the Executive Director of Research and Evaluation at the Arizona State University’s Office of the Vice President for Education Partnerships, which works with pre-K-12, public and private sector partners to enhance the academic performance of students in high need communities. Most recently, as a postdoctoral research fellow at the Institute for the Study of Social Change at the University of California-Berkeley (UCB), Dr. Öztürk’s work focused on identifying, reviewing, and assessing exemplary and promising programs designed to improve educational outcomes for African American, Latino, and Native American undergraduates in the U.S. Dr. Öztürk’s evaluation and research interests are broadly targeted at the topics of student access, academic success, evidence-based policy development, and the efficacy of university-school (K-12) partnerships in systemic change. Dr. Öztürk received his Ph.D. in International/Intercultural Education Policy, Planning, and Administration from the University of Southern California (USC). He also holds a Master of Arts in College and University Administration from Michigan State University (MSU) and a Bachelor of Arts degree in Measurement and Evaluation in Education from Hacettepe University (HU), Turkey.
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