07/31/2013 05:01 pm ET Updated Sep 30, 2013

Will The American University System Follow In The Wake of Our Merchant Fleet?

Americans always knew that the most reliable path to financial success and status was hard work and higher education. The rush to higher education started in 1947 when the GI Bill sent millions of Americans to college. Higher education then was seen as both affordable and valuable. Within five years, the percentage of Americans with a bachelor's degree doubled and it has been climbing ever since; spurring much of the economic activity and many of the technological advances that vaulted America to a position atop the world. Now the pace has slowed and we are losing that competitive race toward a highly educated, technologically adept society. If we are not careful, our exemplary higher education system will fall from global prominence in much the same way as our deep sea merchant fleet slipped from its position as first in the world.

Already America no longer has the highest percentage of young citizens (25-34 year olds) with a college degree (we are in 11th place, behind Korea, Japan, Norway, Ireland, Sweden and others). In fact, the United States is one of very few countries where the older generation has a higher level of educational attainment than the younger. Although we are still the number one host country for international students, our market share of those bright foreigners has dropped from 23% to 18% in just the last few years. Of more concern is the declining number of Americans who pursue a degree in science, technology, engineering or math, the so called STEM subjects. Only 16% of our college students are in STEM fields while our international competitors are producing many more science and engineering degrees (55% of the degrees awarded in Singapore are in STEM fields). Another fact: almost half of the science and engineering degrees awarded in American universities go to international students who are here on F-1 visas...and often these students are required to return to their own country upon graduation - even if they want to stay and make their fortunes here.

Although a number of colleges and universities in America are struggling, the six American state maritime colleges are enjoying the largest enrollment in their history with long wait lists common for those wishing to enroll. Costs to attend are low, graduation rates are high and the schools' reputations are excellent. Many graduates from these colleges can earn enough in their first year or two out of school to repay all their student loans. The program of study is centered on three pillars: a STEM focus, months of on-the-job experience, and a disciplined environment that develops teamwork and leadership.

While specialized, they represent an educational model that is an unquestioned success. In fact, the Chinese, who supply the largest number of international students to the world, have been sending students and faculty to our maritime academies in increasing numbers. Massachusetts Maritime Academy (MMA) began a student exchange program with Shanghai Maritime University (SMU) in 2009 with a group of ten SMU cadets. After the SMU cadets had been here for two weeks, the MMA faculty assigned to teach the Chinese students (interspersed with American cadets) raised some concerns. The professors said the Chinese sat in class, did not respond to questions, took notes but did not participate in the classroom process. They thought the Chinese were unable to process the complicated information presented at a rapid pace in heavily New England-accented English and recommended we switch the grading to pass/fail or abandon the project. At the end of the semester it was a different story. Although they were in a new country with a different culture, learning challenging college-level technical subjects in a new language the Chinese cadets ranked in the top spots in almost every class, besting their American counterparts in such subjects as Stability and Trim, Dangerous Liquid Cargo, Principles of Finance, Port/Terminal Operations, Vessel Chartering, and Business Law.

We in America need to take a lesson from the Chinese and relearn the equation "hard work + higher education = success" or we will certainly suffer the consequences. One answer to our declining place in the world of higher education may well be more choices modeled after our own maritime colleges. It may be ironic that the antidote to the sickness sweeping our educational system might come from the maritime industry but if we don't do something quickly, the Chinese will be the first of many countries that surpass the US in higher education opportunities and national success.