Posted on December 16, 2012
Consider for a moment how many of us have benefited from U.S. research universities’ advances in antibiotics, X-rays or transistors — and how many more sit on pins and needles in anticipation of the next innovations in cancer treatment, spinal cord repair or drought-resistant seeds.
Now imagine a world where these American institutions can’t be counted on for such life-changing discoveries, where our research universities lag other nations’ and money flows to businesses in Bangalore or Beijing that capitalize on their universities’ breakthroughs.
This isn’t far-fetched — it is the very real threat posed by shrinking state education funds, ballooning federal regulations and the looming fiscal cliff.
Research is our secret weapon, our edge in an increasingly competitive world economy. Our universities, especially our 200 research universities, along with our national laboratories and private-sector research, constitute the greatest force for innovation in the world. Without this research, the U.S. could not possibly produce nearly 25 percent of all the wealth in the world each year.
But a study published this year by the National Research Council, “Research Universities and the Future of America,” highlights the threat to the future of our research universities and to the prosperity and security of our nation.
The report finds that state funding for higher education, already eroded over the past two decades, has fallen further in the recent recession. The University of California system, Pennsylvania State University and University of Colorado have each been “pushed to the brink,” according to the report’s authors, by steep losses in state funds. According to the National Science Foundation, 43 states have cut their per-student support for major public research universities over the past decade, many by 30 percent or more.
States are being forced, primarily by Washington, to spend more of their limited tax dollars on health care, draining the well for public colleges and universities. A 2003 Brookings Institution report by Peter Orszag and Thomas J. Kane concluded that Medicaid is “the biggest challenge casting a shadow on public higher education’s future” as the “rapid growth in state Medicaid obligations over the past few decades has crowded out public higher education expenditures, and … [is] expected to continue to grow rapidly over the coming decade.”
Medicaid today accounts for nearly a quarter of state budgets, on average, up from 8 percent 30 years ago. In Tennessee last year, state spending on Medicaid was up 16 percent and funding for higher education was down 15 percent — as a result, the University of Tennessee raised tuition by nearly 14 percent.
The NRC report finds that federal regulations and reporting requirements are absorbing university dollars. A former Stanford University president estimated that, even during his tenure, it cost his institution seven cents of each tuition dollar to comply with regulations governing federal student loans and grants. Surely that cost has risen.
Congress made the problem worse when it reauthorized the Higher Education Act in 2008. At the same time China was working to deregulate its higher-education system, we added 26 new reporting categories and over 100 new reporting requirements. Research university regulations are frequently duplicative and inefficient, diverting money and time away from research toward compliance.
The most immediate threat to research universities is the looming fiscal cliff. The federal government provides approximately $30 billion for research and development to colleges and universities. It’s a high-yield investment — our nation’s wealth comes primarily from our technological advances; we invented the automobile, the television set and the Internet. And federally funded research at the university level supports a large number of these advances — giving us the technology behind Google, Cisco and Genentech.
A recent analysis by the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation finds that sequestration will shrink federal R&D by nearly 9 percent from 2011 spending levels, reducing gross domestic product by $203 billion to $860 billion over nine years. This is equivalent to “taking away all the new motor vehicles purchased by U.S. consumers over the last six months [or] all their airline travel over the last two years,” according to the report.
America must take the necessary steps to meet these challenges. First, Washington must tackle the debt before it constrains spending on the programs and priorities that drive our economy forward and improve our standard of living. The America COMPETES Act, which passed with huge bipartisan support in the Senate, called for a doubling of federal funding for advanced research — an impossible goal when Washington is borrowing 42 cents of every dollar it spends.
Second, state legislatures and Congress need to reduce the regulations and mandates that are strangling college administrators and productivity, and take a hard look at the consequences of dramatic reductions to higher education funds.
Finally, universities must continue to look for ways to reduce costs — in their operations and to students and families — without sacrificing quality. Steps might include improving energy efficiency on campus, making better use of campus facilities, offering pathways to three-year degrees and using innovative technologies and teaching methods to improve learning.
We still have most of the world’s great universities. They still attract most of the brightest students from everywhere, in-sourcing brainpower and creating wealth. But if we fail to tackle the threats to our research universities, that boast could soon belong to another country.
Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) has served as the U.S. secretary of education and as president of the University of Tennessee. Hunter Rawlings III is president of the Association of American Universities and former president of Cornell University and the University of Iowa.