The American Interest
Analysis by Walter Russell Mead & Staff
Academia’s Day of Reckoning Draws Nearer

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.

Published on June 19, 2012 9:00 am
  • Jacksonian Libertarian

    “For all its flaws, our higher education system is indeed a core component of our society’s success.”

    While I agree higher education is a component of our culture’s success, the system is not, as higher education can be delivered online at a fraction of the cost, with economies of scale. I am reminded of the defense cuts around the bay area in the late 60′s and early 70′s, and all the bright minds that had to find new ways to make money. The result of course was Silicon Valley, and an explosion of entrepreneurial activity and technological innovation.

    Check this out:
    http://www.udacity.com/
    This came about from a computer course offered online by a Stanford professor, objections by the Stanford administration to credentialing the course completion by thousands of students from all over the world who had never been admitted to Stanford (completed all the expensive red tape blockades to getting an education), and that professor’s leaving Stanford to start an online University.

  • Corlyss

    “American schools “are in grave danger of not only losing their place of global leadership but of serious erosion in quality.”

    Welcome to the world of zero core cirriculum, fluff courses like black/women/latino/lgbt/minority studies, and endless paeans to the educational value of diversity.

    Bravo, Boomers! What else do you have in mind for the educational system?

  • Corlyss

    Hey, TAs behind the curtain!!!!!

    We need a thread on the massive Russian military move to station off Syria!
    http://johnbatchelorshow.com/jb/2012/06/russian-exercise/

  • Kris

    “Does the quality and funding of a country’s universities directly correlate with its economic prosperity?”

    Perhaps not, but booming airports are critical for prosperous cities, and successful football programs are essential for quality universities.
    :-)

  • teapartydoc

    Are universities even about learning any more?