A Steep Price to Pay for Short-Changing Education

By Robert M. Gates    //    Volume 21,  Number 3   //    May/June 2013

Public higher education has always been a keen interest of mine, one that preceded my tenure as president of Texas A&M and later chancellor of the College of William & Mary. As CIA director I made it a priority, even during tight budget times, to fund basic research on a number of campuses.

I have long believed that the economic preeminence of this country—and our national security and international influence as well—are due in large measure to visionary investments in public education, often at critical times in American history.

In 1862, even with the Civil War raging, Congress passed the Morrill Act, which established land-grant colleges and universities, an act of faith in the midst of a great civil war. The first G.I. bill, passed in 1944, enabled millions of military veterans to go to college and is credited with spurring the sustained, shared prosperity of the post-war era.

The National Defense Education Act of 1958 greatly increased federal funding in education at every level. The Soviets’ launching of Sputnik a year earlier galvanized the nation to ensure that we would not fall behind the U.S.S.R. in math and science. Some called the Cold War conflict “a competition in brains.” The late historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., said more colorfully that the United States “must return to the acceptance of eggheads and ideas if it is to meet the Russian challenge.”

The years proved him right

Unfortunately, over the past generation we have seen a gradual abandonment of the principle that higher education is a public good and the emergence of a view that it is a private consumer good, of value only to the recipient.

Today, state coffers provide about 30 percent of funding. At prominent public universities such as William & Mary and the University of Virginia, state funding contributes less than 15 percent of operating support. The story is even worse in some other states. For example, the University of Washington has lost 50 percent of its public funding in just the last four years.

According to an Illinois State University study, between 2011 and 2012, state aid to universities declined by nearly 8 percent, the largest drop in 50 years. Per-student support has been reduced by more than 20 percent in 17 states.

Funding shortfalls at universities affect their ability to conduct basic research. What is discovered in research one day is taught in the classroom the next, and then employed as a tool of economic development, innovation, and, in some cases, national defense. The false notion that teaching in universities serves students but that research in universities does not betrays a profound misunderstanding of how academic institutions become great—and stay great.

Between the 1970s and 1990s, federal funding for research and development fell as a percentage of gross domestic product by more than 50 percent in the physical sciences and in engineering. By contrast, China and South Korea are increasing their funding 10 percent, year over year.

Programs for the elderly now consume more than half of all federal spending and are considered politically untouchable. There is no such resistance to cutting support for higher education or scientific research and development. Nor, for all the rhetoric to the contrary, is there a powerful constituency for America’s youth. The U.S. political system is mortgaging our country’s future to protect benefits to my generation while sacrificing the engines of economic and social growth for the coming generations. This is a formula for national decline.

These challenges have come to a head in the sequestration debacle. Without a new agreement between the Congress and the president, hundreds of billions of dollars in mindless across-the-board cuts will gut basic functions and critical activities of government over the next decade—military and civilian, including support for public education, research, and development. According to the American Association for the Advancement of Science, sequestration will reduce federal R&D funding by nearly $60 billion over five years. Cuts of this magnitude will have significant impacts on the ability of public universities to pursue science, research, and innovation.

We will all pay the price for short-changing education, research, and other investments in the future. It will be felt in the decline of America’s quality of life, standards of living, and global influence. My hope is that whatever adults remain in the two political parties will make the compromises necessary to put this country’s finances back in order—before it is too late.

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