Does the quality and funding of a country’s universities directly correlate with its economic prosperity? A piece in the Wall Street Journal suggests that this question is increasingly up for debate.In a report issued last week, a committee of leaders from higher ed institutions and nonprofits warned that impending funding cuts for higher education threaten to undermine our education system as a whole, and that American schools “are in grave danger of not only losing their place of global leadership but of serious erosion in quality.” Many, however, remain unconvinced of this threat. One expert noted that there is little correlation between strong academic-based research programs and economic prosperity; others counter that there is plenty of funding available for necessary programs without significant input from the government.Whoever is correct, the fact that the argument is taking place is evidence of a trend Via Meadia has been following for some time: as the winds of austerity sweep through the country, winter is coming for academia. Taxpayers and their representatives can no longer afford to supply blanket support to every academic venture, field and practitioner; we’ve already seen this when it comes to attempts to defund political science research. This stuff costs quite a bit of money, as the WSJ notes:
Public research universities—generally defined as those that compete for research funding and offer advanced degrees—typically depend on federal and state appropriations for more than half of their budgets. Private research universities get about a third of their funding from the government.Employee fringe benefits, including retirement plans, accounted for 13.6% of total spending at 124 four-year public research universities in 2009, according to federal data compiled by the Delta Cost Project, a nonprofit group that examines higher-education funding…After decades of growth, total state funding for higher education has dropped by 15% since 2008, adjusted for inflation, to an estimated $72.5 billion this fiscal year, as states have struggled with budget deficits. In states like Arizona, South Carolina, and New Hampshire, cuts have surpassed 25%.
Universities need to get out in front of this and start finding ways to make themselves more effective, efficient, and affordable—or they will face a huge crisis as the cuts continue. For all its flaws, our higher education system is indeed a core component of our society’s success. Via Meadia hopes that sensible reformers will ensure it stays that way for generations to come.