If past is prologue to the future, then the recent past for America’s public research universities should be a cause for concern.
According to a National Science Board report released this week, the past decade has been a tough one for public research universities in the United States. This is no news flash for most of us in higher ed, especially those of us employed by public research universities. Still, the extent of the decline in state support over the past several years is troubling.
This study of the nation’s 101 major public research universities — those an Associated Press report calls “the pride and backbone of American higher education, doing essential research and educating en masse the next generations of scientists and engineers” — finds that state per-student funding has declined by an average of 20 percent in inflation-adjusted dollars between 2002 and 2010. Ten states experienced declines ranging from 30 to as high as 48 percent.
What will happen if the nation’s public research universities continue to wither away? Since the post-Sputnik era, public research universities have become some of the nation’s most important centers of innovation, scientific discovery and economic development.
Yes, public institutions must find a way to become more efficient and control costs. And yes, states aren’t the only source of funding for research universities. Perhaps by necessity, institutions are looking to corporate and business interests for more support for research, but those dollars often come with strings attached. Applied research for companies is often tied to specific corporate interests. Federal dollars, a resource for more exploratory research in the past, have also become more tightly controlled, and a significant chunk of federal funding is expected to go away next January. That’s when some $500 billion in Defense Department funding may evaporate if sequestration takes effect. Those cuts would reverberate across the U.S. — our universities, as well as our military-industrial complex.
A case must be made that public funding that supports public higher education is an investment in our future, not a cost. If not, then the future may look even bleaker for public higher education.