Whatever Happened to Public Higher Education? (Part 3)

The unintended consequences of “mission creep” and greatly expanded research agendas

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:

  • Low graduation rates at most public universities and colleges;
  • Insufficient funds to offer a quality educational experience;
  • Rising levels of deferred maintenance of campus buildings and infrastructure;
  • A focus on graduate education and research at the expense of serving the undergraduate population;
  • Diversion of scarce instructional funds to support Division I athletics;
  • A steep decline in affordability because of rapidly rising tuitions (public university tuition and fees have risen by more than 70 percent in just the past five years in Arizona, Georgia and Washington state – Morning Edition, National Public Radio, March 18, 2014).

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:

  • Very often new facilities must be built to provide a proper venue for the research that the grant is intended to fund. At public universities, construction of these facilities is rarely paid from the institution’s operating budget. Instead, the state provides “capital” funding that is specifically directed to new construction.
  • A new building may look like an obvious win for the campus – but the campus now has to operate this additional space, paying for more custodians, hiring more researchers and technicians, providing more financial support to more graduate students, and incurring additional utilities costs, all of which are drains on the campus’s operating budget.
  • Funds for new public university buildings rarely come from the state’s annual budget, but instead from the issuance of bonds. In effect, the state creates buildings the same way that an individual buys a house: by acquiring a mortgage. Interest costs over the 25 or 30 years the state needs to retire a bond can easily double the actual cost of the building – and, of course, it is the taxpayers who are ultimately obligated to pay for the bond.
  • So how does the state benefit from the construction of buildings devoted to research? Erection of the building itself employs construction workers, and anything that creates new jobs, however temporary, is always popular. In addition, it is certainly possible that a particular research grant may produce a marketable product (although that outcome is seldom the stated purpose of the grant) – but there is no guarantee, even if a new product is developed, that the state will in any way benefit. The product may be sold to an out-of-state firm, in which case the state receives no return on its investment.
  • The bottom line is that research grants rarely provide a positive return, either for the state or for the institution, by the time that capital and operating expenses are calculated.

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.