I recently had a random conversation with someone I don't know about Universities - she's in a tough financial situation and would like to transfer to CMU (as a CS person) but isn't sure she can afford it, and finds the difference in financial aid available to people of different races (a la affirmative action and relative public support for race-specific scholarships that happens to offer her race nothing). I feel bad for her - CMU isn't a very affordable school, and people who want to attend need some combination of wealth, large amounts of financial aid, and ability to attract (and willingness to accept) expensive loans. While I think she may have taken the race thing a bit further than I'm comfortable (although, not knowing her, I may have misinterpreted), it's not hard to see why she's upset. I talked with her a bit about the different university systems in Europe.. I think she'd actually fit in pretty well with the cluster crowd..
On the topic of University, I came across this BBC article comparing academic standards for education in maths between China and the UK. Of particular interest is the example included at the bottom of the test - the British sample exam question is elementary 2d trig, and is composed of knowledge I keep on the top of my head, while the Chinese sample question involves proofs and determinations on not-quite-so-elementary 3d trig - stuff where I'd need pen and paper and possibly a good amount of time to solve (and by my standardised scores, I'm in the top few percentile in mathematical ability, or at least was when I was younger). This story is related to a story where British students are encouraged by their school to drop maths and other difficult subjects in order to keep their GPA (and thus school standing) high - very disappointing. If I had to guess, I'd think that American standards are closer to those of the UK than China, when present at all. All this must be tempered with the knowledge that not everyone in China, the UK, or the United States goes to university, and with multiple tracks available (not all called "university") for postsecondary education, simple comparisons are sometimes misleading. Is university right for everyone? How do high standards relate to that? I think that the educational system should strive to help people acquire a general education suitable towards their being a knowledgable citizen (which I don't think it does a good enough job of in the United States, failing both by letting people avoid human subjects too much when taking a technical discipline and by not having enough of a standard curriculum (think: covered topics) for that general education), provide basic competence in the broad discipline people are entering (philosophy of science and stats for some people, maths and physics for others), and offer specific-field learning beyond that. This should be provided to people as per their abilities, whether by vocational schools, community colleges, universities, or special academies. I don't know if the University environment, as I know it, is productive for everyone, either because of their demeanor or abilities, but those three areas of understanding should be given to everyone through some means to help them be a knowledgable citizen (qualified to vote and have opinions), be able to transfer their knowledge to new fields as needed, and be qualified within their field. If high standards can help inspire people to push themselves to learn more or for schools to be more effective at teaching, that's great, but people who don't meet one of those standards should not be abandoned by the system as a whole - giving each person serious opportunities to expand their Weltanschauung (I'm using the term in the broader sense here) to meet their potential and interests is a societal good that I think we should be striving for.