The Uncertain Future of American Public Universities

The future of American public universities is under threat as student debt skyrockets.
By Daniel Mark Fogel
December 2012
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Students face rising tuition costs, causing many to wonder if a college education is worth the money.
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As student costs skyrocket, driven by steep drops in funding, the viability of public higher education is under threat. In Precipice or Crossroads? (SUNY Press, 2012), top experts in higher education address a broad range of issues central to the question of whether the quality of these institutions — and of American life and democracy — can be sustained. In the following excerpt from the introduction, Daniel Mark Fogel discusses the past, present and uncertain future of American public universities. 

This volume poses a question of pressing importance to the American people. Today, 150 years after the Morrill Land-grant Act generated the reigning paradigm of public higher education in the United States — a model combining accessible and inexpensive undergraduate, graduate, and professional education; research, discovery, and innovation; a commitment to the practical application of knowledge to address economic and social challenges; and a mission of service for the public good — our great public universities are under threat, and some would say they are facing their hour of maximum peril.

They are among the finest centers of education and knowledge creation anywhere. Seven of the top twenty research institutions in the world according to a recent ranking are American land-grant universities and as such they strongly support, with their private peers, Fareed Zakaria’s observation that “Higher education is America’s best industry.” America’s public universities greatly exceed their private peers in scale and in the importance of their contribution to national prosperity, competitiveness, and security. They perform more than 60 percent of the academic research and development in the nation. They educate some 85 percent of the students who receive bachelor’s degrees at all American research universities, and 70 percent of all graduate students. They award more than 50 percent of the doctorates granted in the United States in eleven of thirteen national needs categories — including between 60 to 80 percent of the doctorates in computer and information sciences, engineering, foreign languages and linguistics, mathematics and statistics, physical sciences, and security. Without the expansive capacity they provided after World War II to receive returning veterans and, later, the children and grandchildren of the veterans’ generation, America’s postwar prosperity and power would have been unthinkable and unattainable.

But today the nation’s public research universities are looking down a dark vista of decline, with few discernible paths forward that would effectively sustain, let alone enhance, the public mission forged when Abraham Lincoln signed the Morrill Land-grant Act on July 2, 1862. It is a vista defined by steeply declining state appropriations, by wavering, at-risk federal investment in research, and by aging physical plants that are less and less adequate to meet the educational needs of a growing population and national needs for research-based problem solving. Reduced public funding, moreover, drives relentless upward pressure on tuition, undermining the historical commitment to a low-cost college education for all and putting public higher education on a collision course with a growing body of feeling and commentary that college may simply not be worth it. And thus the question posed in the title Precipice or Crossroads? comes into focus: Our public research universities are the nation’s most productive centers of education and talent development, not just of physicists, engineers, biologists, and computer scientists, but also of the practitioners of virtually all of the professions and callings that together weave the fabric of our society, from nurses, social workers, accountants, and physical therapists to designers, artists, dancers, and writers; they are our most prolific sources of research, discovery, and innovation, not just in science and technology but also in philosophy and ethics, in public policy, in education itself, indeed in almost everything; can the nation, then, remain prosperous, strong, and healthy if these critical institutions have been sent careening toward a cliff edge, and can that hair-raising course be changed?

Of course, we have not yet reached the verge of the precipice, and in many respects our great public universities have never been stronger and more effective. But here is the paradox: we know that these powerful institutions, their missions of accessible education, knowledge creation, and service, and their world-leading quality are at risk when we look at the unsustainable trend lines in public funding and tuition pricing. As I was writing this introduction, I paused to read a just-published news story on public higher education reporting that nationwide “[s]tate appropriations per full-time equivalent student dropped by 4 percent in constant dollars in 2010–11, after dropping 6 percent in 2009–10 and 9 percent in 2008–9” while in-state tuitions rose an average of 8.3 percent (paced by a 21 percent increase in California), and, moreover, that “in 2010, average American income in every quintile of the income distribution was lower in inflation-adjusted dollars than it had been a decade before.” We only have to juxtapose these data points with the observation of Michael Crow and William Dabars in their chapter of this book that “there is a direct correlation between fiscal robustness and the capacity of an institution to pursue excellence in teaching, research, and public service, as well as its potential to contribute to the standard of living and quality of life of communities and regions” to see the vicious downward spiral threatening our public universities and American well-being as economic and political forces increase institutional reliance on tuition, pushing student costs toward levels beyond the reach of many families. Either students will be squeezed out, or institutions will lack the fiscal robustness to sustain excellence, and, in time, both of those undesirable consequences will come to pass. So the first part of the question this book poses is frankly rhetorical, the answer implicit in the question itself: the nation’s public university sector, the most important source of renewal of the nation’s human resources and of its capacity for innovation, problem solving, and economic competitiveness, is at risk; ergo, so is the nation.

The second part of the question — Can we keep from going over the precipice? Can difficulty and challenge become opportunities for the change in course symbolized by the crossroads in the title of this book? — is an open one, no doubt as open as a variety of questions that might be posed about the fate of the nation itself. Despite the forces at work at the moment that militate against government funding of any number of public goods, from high-speed rail and broadband access to health care and education, it is my belief that our great public universities — and, in turn, the nation — will decline if the political currents are not reversed, and specifically if the tide does not turn on state and federal support for public research universities. It is my hope that this volume will help to inform and fortify the efforts and voices of those who campaign for such a turn. For while it is incumbent on the leaders, the faculty, and the staff of public universities to manage the resources entrusted to them as effectively as possible, and while private giving will always play an important role in supporting the pursuit of academic excellence, only sustained, robust, and predictable funding from the states and the federal government can ensure that the nation will continue to derive at globally competitive levels the numerous benefits that public higher education provides.

A few years ago, the New York Times reported on China’s effort “to transform its top universities into the world’s best within a decade . . . spending billions of dollars to woo big-name scholars . . . and to build first-class research laboratories,” an essential element of China’s project to “raise its profile as a great power.” The Times quoted Wu Bangguo, Chairman and Party Secretary of the National People’s Congress in the People’s Republic of China and the nation’s second-highest-ranking leader, as saying, “First-class universities increasingly reflect a nation’s overall power,” to which I would add that they not only reflect but to a significant degree build that power (and if power per se is not your thing, substitute prosperity, health, quality of life). It would be tragic if the American people were to forget this lesson in nation building, inscribed in the Morrill Landgrant Act at a crucial turning point in American history, just as other nations on the rise are taking it to heart. “The only way to gain more leverage on China,” writes Thomas Friedman in a recent Times column, “is to increase our savings and graduation rates—and export more and consume less” (“Barack Kissinger Obama”), and let us say amen to the graduation rates, a concern indicative of Friedman’s agreement with Wu Bangguo’s view of the relationship of higher education to the strength of nations. 

I also wish to show that liberal education, including the study of literature and the classics, was an integral part of Justin Morrill’s vision, both when he brought the Land-grant Act forward in Congress and when he looked back on its passage years later. My chapter surveys the development of the modern research university with special attention to those aspects of its character, history, management, and partnerships (for example, after World War II, increasingly with the military-industrial complex) that privilege some disciplines, especially science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (the STEM disciplines), marginalizing other disciplines and thus demoralizing faculty and students in those disciplines. 

I discuss the ways in which the culture wars of the 1980s and 1990s turned the humanities in particular into favorite targets of ideological critics of the academy, a battering that coincided with a deepening crisis in the employability of new PhDs in virtually all of the humanities disciplines. And I seek to make a case for the indispensable role of the arts and humanities without recourse to utilitarian rationales such as the oft-heard claim that the study of English, for example, is important because good communication skills can help one succeed in business. 

Much is rightly made of the “value added” that research universities provide to our society, and in the end my argument is that it is only through the humanities that we are able to determine what value is in those often most important domains of human experience in which, as M. H. Abrams has put it, “valid knowledge and understanding are essential, but certainty is impossible” and that it is only through the arts that human beings fully express and know their own humanity. In the absence of such knowledge and understanding, how are our scientists and technologists to know the ends to which their innovations should be directed? Or, to pose the question in another key, I have always believed in the great, original land-grant mission of ensuring the efficient provision to humanity of food and fiber, but once we are fed and clothed how much more than brutish would we be if we were condemned to huddle at the bottom of the Maslow hierarchy of needs, content with food, shelter, sleep, and warmth, and unable to understand and enjoy art, music, literature, dance, philosophy, and yes, Governor Scott, anthropology and political science?

Burlington, Vermont
November 3, 2011

This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from Precipice or Crossroads?, published by SUNY Press, 2012.  


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