This is the third part of a conversation about what has gone wrong with public higher education. In Part 1, we considered some metrics that demonstrate the extent of the problem:
In Part 2, we discussed the underlying reasons behind the current problems associated with public higher education – including how the history, evolution and expansion of the public institutions created tension with state governments because the universities and the states did not share the same assumptions regarding the role each would play in serving the public at large.
Now, in Part 3, we will examine in greater depth the unintended consequences both of “mission creep” by the state colleges and of a greatly expanded research agenda by the flagship publics.
To review: All of the states now have at least one flagship public university, charged with providing undergraduate, graduate and professional education, as well as research. All that is well and good. But as the research agenda and budget of the federal government grew in the years after WW-II, many public colleges and universities succumbed to the lure of research dollars (and many state legislatures proved only too willing to support that ambition). It is important to understand that this change has come at the expense of the public universities’ original mission that focused much more on undergraduate education.
(Until WW-II, the federal government did not consider research in science and engineering to be a federal responsibility. The National Science Foundation dates only to 1950, and in its first year had a budget of just $150,000. NSF now has a budget in excess of $7 billion and annually provides 50,000 grants to researchers at 3000 institutions. The National Institutes of Health has funded health-related research since 1930, modestly at first, but now with a $30 billion annual budget. A high level of federally sponsored research in public universities is, in short, a relatively recent phenomenon.)
Federal grants dollars do not just pay for the research proposed by the faculty member who wrote the grant. In addition, so-called “indirect funds” – money that Washington allocates to the institution to pay for the costs of managing the grant – can be an important source of operating revenues for institutions with many federal grants.
However, success in obtaining big research grants is not the unmitigated triumph that institutions claim. Research grants come with negative consequences, both to the institution and to the state. Consider:
All this is not to say that research grants are a boondoggle. Universities are places that not only transmit knowledge but also expand it. Society advances because of research. The current quality of American life owes a great deal to the decision of the federal government to utilize universities to carry out much of the nation’s research agenda. But these advances come with substantial costs for both the states and the universities that are largely hidden, yet that represent a long-term drain on the states’ finances.
In the face of the added costs to the universities of having more funded research, the public universities were obliged, over time, to redirect to graduate education a portion of the state appropriations that were intended to subsidize the education of undergraduates, in order to balance their operating budgets. The result has been ever larger undergraduate classes that are more and more commonly staffed by adjunct instructors or graduate assistants.
The Great Recession has significantly exacerbated the consequence of this diversion of funds from undergraduate to graduate education. Historically, for the public universities to sustain their research enterprise, they required continual increases in state support – but when state support instead began dropping, the consequences of diminished resources fell heavily on the undergraduates, most obviously in the form of greatly increased tuition. Worse, the educational experience was often inferior to what a previous generation of students had experienced – an outcome that quite reasonably infuriated the parents of prospective undergraduates who had been planning to attend these state schools.
In contrast to the flagship state universities, the state colleges were generally charged by the states with providing undergraduate education only. However, as I noted in Part 2, the state colleges engaged in “mission creep” by developing graduate programs – and of course graduate education requires a thesis that demonstrates original research. Original research must logically be overseen by faculty who have the requisite education and experience. The consequence was that state colleges that had once cheerfully hired faculty with masters’ degrees who taught four or five courses a semester, now felt it necessary to hire doctorally trained faculty – people who understood how to conduct and oversee research, but who had absolutely no specific training as teachers.
Faculty with the Ph.D. not only cost more, but they generally are also interested in (and expected by the institution to continue) their research – so they successfully lobbied for a reduction in their teaching loads. The state colleges became state universities, frequently developed visions of grandeur, and too often set out to become miniature versions of the flagship public research universities, to the consternation of almost everyone. Yet with a smaller research base, these universities remained highly dependent on state appropriations to balance their budgets – and when state appropriations fell, as they have in recent years, it was impossible for these universities to raise tuition enough to recoup the lost state dollars, even though, to the public, the increases in tuition have been outrageous and unjustified.
To summarize, today almost every state has public campuses with billions of dollars of deferred maintenance in their aging buildings; highly inflated tuition levels; relatively costly faculty doing research at the expense of time spent in the classroom; pricey athletic programs that almost always lose money; a dramatic increase in the number of poorly paid adjunct faculty; and in general a too-often unsatisfactory educational experience for the undergraduate students.
These are huge problems. How might we attempt to address them, and put public higher education back on track?
Next week: Part 4.