The March For Science And American Higher Education

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Along with millions of other Americans, I watched with great interest the phenomenon that played out across the United States this past Earth Day: tens of thousands of people in cities across our country marching in support of science. As I read accounts of what people chanted and what was said, I thought of the statistic that higher education accounts for the third-largest expenditure of general fund budgets (the portion financed primarily through taxes) in America, behind only primary and secondary education and Medicaid. Much of the science people were advocating for has been discovered on, expanded upon, and disseminated from the campuses of America’s colleges and universities.

As we observe in our forthcoming book, College for the Commonwealth: Why American Democracy Needs Higher Education (Michael Benson and Hal Boyd, University Press of Kentucky), our country may be facing trade deficits in a whole host of other areas, but higher education is not one of them. On the contrary, our higher education system is the envy of the entire world. All one needs to do is examine the enrollment of graduate programs in the hard sciences to witness the world’s demand for American higher education. Whether the rankings are the Times Higher Education World Rankings or the U.S. News and World Report Best Universities Global Ranking, the Global Top 100 Universities have a preponderance of American colleges and universities ranked among the world’s best. America has taken the best of the British university model (teaching and lecturing) and melded it with the German university model (research) to produce institutions which are considered the finest in the world and have produced more Nobel laureates and path-breaking research and discoveries than any institutions in the history of mankind.

To quote Jonathan Cole of Columbia University, the ambition to excel and the fierce competiveness of scientists, scholars, and administrators at American research universities has led these entities to become the engines of our nation’s prosperity. In his book, The Great American University, Cole observed: “The laser, magnetic resonance imaging, FM radio, the algorithm for Google searches, Global Positioning Systems, DNA fingerprinting, fetal monitoring, scientific cattle breeding, advanced methods of surveying public opinion, and even Viagra all had their origins in America’s research universities, as did tens of thousands of other inventions, devices, medical miracles, and ideas that have transformed the world.”

Clark Kerr, former president of the University of California, was correct in his assertion that the “United States has, overall, the most effective system of higher education the world has ever known.” And not only is our higher education system the envy of the world, it is also the object of emulation at home, as those communities with universities and colleges have proven to be relatively insulated from the vicissitudes of today’s global economy.

A recent study by the Brookings Institution for The Wall Street Journal found 16 geographic areas where overall job growth was strong, even though manufacturing employment fell more sharply in those places from 2000 to 2014 than in the U.S. as a whole. Among the 16 surprisingly resilient areas, half are home to a major university. Mark Muro, a Brookings urban specialist concluded: “Better educated places with colleges tend to be more productive and more able to shift out of declining industries into growing ones. Ultimately, cities survive by continually adapting their economies to new technologies, and colleges are central to that.”

Since the days of the Morrill Land Grant Act of 1862 and the G.I. Bill, America has made enormous investments in public higher education. These federal investments, in the form of Pell Grants and Stafford loans direct to students, have only been matched and exceeded by investments in infrastructure by state and local governments. One need only consider the billions invested in the form of classrooms, laboratories, residence halls and the innumerable support structures needed to maintain a college or university to realize the impossibility of “walking back” our commitment from public institutions throughout our nation. This is not to suggest that closures of college campuses are not inevitable or that consolidations will not happen. To the contrary, Moody’s Investor Service reported that closures of small colleges (which are defined by Moody’s as private colleges with operating revenue below $100 million and public colleges below $200 million), are set to triple in 2017 at a rate of 15 institutions closing their doors for good.

Notwithstanding, the trend lines are clear. Education Statistics reported that total undergraduate enrollment in degree-granting postsecondary institutions increased 31 percent from 13.2 million in 2000 to 17.3 million in 2014. Even more significant for policy makers to note is that by 2025, total undergraduate enrollment is projected to increase to 19.8 million students. And if these students are a reflection of the ever-changing American population, our college campuses will grow increasingly diverse, thus ushering in an entire new wave of graduates – many of whom are first-generation college students – who have the potential to change exponentially the trajectory of their own lives and prospects as well as those who will follow.

American public higher education – and all the scientific discoveries that come along with an investment in our colleges and institutions – are now at the proverbial crossroads. Once viewed as a public good and supported by a broad cross section of policy makers and consumers alike, a college education is now considered a “private benefit” by many who believe it should be treated as a consumption tax: those who use it, pay for it. Given the strains on state budgets across our country, this is an argument repeated more regularly. But all Americans benefit from those around us having as much education as possible.

When one considers that education represents the only panacea to every single one of the ills facing our society, it certainly makes sense to double down on the investment and expand access rather than siphon off resources and restrict the pipeline. Demographics in the United States continue to change and access to the American dream of postsecondary education – with the attendant promise of increased opportunities and a better life – must be made available to all those who desire it. Just as President Abraham Lincoln envisioned in the 1860’s and President Franklin Roosevelt in the 1940’s, America needs a bold public policy for the 21st century aimed at higher education which will have lasting impact for good just as the Land Grant Act and G.I. Bills have done. If it takes a March for Science like last Saturday’s to get policy makers’ attention, then let’s have more of them.

To be sure, this plea is not novel, nor are Saturday’s marchers the first in calling on our elected officials to rally for our colleges and universities. “Upon the education of the people of this country, the fate of this country depends.” So stated Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, the famed 19th century British statesman and novelist, in a speech made in 1874 before the House of Commons. The same can certainly be said for 21st century America. The time is now for the best investment to be made in the nation’s institutions of higher education.