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PRISM - American Society for Engineering Education - Logo DECEMBER 2005 - VOLUME 15, NUMBER 4
last word
The State of Spending
By Wm. A. Wulf

The decline in public support for higher education is likely to have serious, long-term consequences.

A few historical facts to consider: Thomas Jefferson founded the University of Virginia (U.Va.). In the 19th century, Congress created land-grant colleges. States have long supported public universities and funded scholarships for the needy and the especially talented. Following WWII, the federal government passed the GI Bill. Also following WWII, the federal government assumed responsibility for funding basic research at universities. After Sputnik, the federal government passed the National Defense Education Act (NDEA), which funded the education of many of my contemporaries.

These are not unrelated acts. They stem from a common belief that higher education is for the “public good”—that is, of benefit to all the citizens of the country, not just the individuals who received the education. Jefferson believed that we could not have a democracy without an educated citizenry. The framers of the land-grant bill believed that we needed to focus intellectual effort on the improvement of industry and agriculture. State universities, with modest tuitions and a mandate to educate all who could benefit from it, have produced one of the best-educated citizenries in the world. The GI Bill in part helped to reintegrate returning soldiers into society, but it also created a workforce capable of unprecedented technological innovation. As promised by Vannevar Bush in “Science: The Endless Frontier,” the support of basic academic research has delivered prosperity, security and health, as well as a graduate education system that is the envy of the world. The NDEA not only helped us recapture primacy in space but also complemented the funding of research to produce a cadre of advanced-degree holders who have amplified technological innovation.

In my view, they were right. Higher education has been a public good, and the country has benefited enormously. Yet today I see the public’s attitude changing—changing to a view that higher education is a “private good” primarily of benefit to the individual who receives it rather than to the country as a whole. Whereas the average public support for state universities used to be about 50 percent of their costs, it is now around 30 percent and down to around 10 percent at some (including at my own U.Va.). And tuitions are rising much faster than inflation to make up the difference. In Virginia, Old Dominion, U.Va., Virginia Tech and the College of William and Mary have taken the first tentative steps to “going private” because the cost of being part of the state system and being subject to state regulations exceeded the state’s support. Student loans, rather than scholarships, have become the norm.

If your view is that it is (only) the student who benefits from higher education, these trends make sense. The student should bear its cost, and his or her parents should be willing to take out a loan to invest in his or her future earning power. The country has other priorities—homeland security, healthcare and tax relief.

It would be easy to blame the politicians for this change, but I am afraid it reflects a change away from long-term investment and toward concern with more immediate issues. I see the same trend in the huge shift in the balance of funding between the physical and life sciences, for example. Society appears to think that a cure for the illness de jour is more important than a fundamental understanding of nature.

This is not a good trend! I think it’s time we start a public dialog rather than simply defaulting to a change with long-term and serious deleterious effects for the country.

Wm. A. Wulf, who is on leave from the University of Virginia, is president of the National Academy of Engineering.

 

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