spending on academia is at an all-time high, and universities with
access to powerful members tend to get dealt better hands.
Illustration by Edel Rodriguez
years, college football has faced a crisis in credibility. At the
end of the season the national champion is chosen, not by a fair
contest on the field, but by a poll of coaches and sportswriters
and computers, who rank the teams based on some very subjective
course, there are some very good reasons to keep this imperfect
system. Some 50 teams get to go to postseason bowls, 25 coaches
get to win their last game of the season, and each school gets a
little Christmas present in the form of a check from a bowl committee.
politicians and university presidents and public policy experts
look at the higher-education funding landscape, they see some of
the same problems that plague college football. More and more Congressional
funding comes through "earmarks," short paragraphs inserted
into spending bills that order that money be spent on a certain
program at a certain school. There was a time when most of the federal
money appropriated for higher education programs came from peer
review competitions; presumably the university with the most merit
would win out.
as the economy of the late '90s has left politicians with surpluses,
and spending on technology research is seen as a regional economic
growth engine, the process of funding specific higher-education
programs has come more under the aegis of back-room, back-scratching
politics and less from purer competitions. And as with the mythical
national championship of college football, many colleges and universities
feel that they could win, if only they had a chance to compete.
earmarks have increased from $270 million in 1990 to more than $1
billion in 2000. Unlike peer review funding that might come through
the National Institutes of Health or the National Science Foundation,
congressional earmarks are taken out of agency budgets such as the
Department of Transportation or NASA. These federal agencies will
often hold competitions to fund worthwhile projects involving research
and development or building new facilities at colleges and universities.
The earmarking process bypasses these competitionswhich are
not unlike competitive biddingand opens the process to a wider
number of institutions.
the political process has opened itself wide to criticism that the
pure peer review system has been thrown out the window for a system
that is pork-barrel spending at its worst. "We are funding
higher-education projects in the same way we finance sewers and
roads," says Bob Park, a physics professor at the University
of Maryland and director of public information of the Washington-based
American Physical Society, an association representing 40,000 physicists.
problem," continues Park, "is that politicians fund projects
like sewers and roads to get votes, not necessarily when they are
needed. They are doing the same thing with higher education. Research
grants should not be used to gain more votes."
F. Lane, science advisor to former president Clinton, said in a
1999 interview that the earmarking trend "threatens to undermine
America's position as the world's leader in science and technology."
The National Academy of Sciences, the American Council on Education,
and the Association of American Universities all firmly oppose earmarked
in High Places
The origin of the term "earmark" is instructive as to
how politicos view its purpose. The term comes from a farmer's notching
of a hog's ear as ownership. Hence, earmarking legislation means
that a certain member of Congress has put his personal stamp on
a spending bill. Paragraphs are often inserted during closed-door
conferences and without debate, and the language is often vague
and may not even mention the university by name (sometimes the bills
might authorize spending for a project at a university within a
certain zip code). Members of Congress with seniority have easier
times getting appropriations through than first-term members.
West Virginia often comes out near the top of all states for earmarked
higher-education funds. Last year, Wheeling Jesuit University received
$7 million for the Robert C. Byrd National Technology Transfer Center.
Another $2 million was awarded to the school's Erma Ora Byrd Center
for Educational Enterprises. Robert C. Byrd is the influential Democratic
senator from West Virginia who is famous for procuring all sorts
of funds for his state. Erma Ora Byrd is the senator's wife.
No one is claiming
that the grants to Wheeling Jesuit were not deserving. But the unmistakable
truth is that the grants were probably more dependent on Byrd's
clout than Wheeling Jesuit's R&D expertise in technology transfer
and educational enterprises. During the same calendar year, for
example, the University of California at Berkeley received no earmarked
in favor of earmarks is that smaller schools like Wheeling Jesuit
would never be able to compete for funding on an equal footing with
the likes of UC-Berkeley. The argument against earmarks is that
schools like Wheeling Jesuit should have to prove themselves for
an extended period of time before gaining grants of such magnitude.
But U.S. Rep.
Alan Mollohan (D-WV) says politicians know better than federal agencies
how to spend money for higher education. "Nobody knows their
constituents or their academic institutions or their programs better
than the members of the House or the Senate who represent these
organizations," Mollohan said recently. "We are in a better
position to evaluate the merits of these programs than any executive
David C. Hardesty,
Jr., president of West Virginia University, certainly appreciates
the efforts of legislators on his behalf, especially money for programs
like better eye care, sewage treatment study, and software research.
"We can assure taxpayers that the money is well spent and the
projects have merit on a state and national scope," Hardesty
wrote in the Charleston Gazette recently. "We owe our gratitude
to senators Robert C. Byrd and Jay Rockefeller and members of our
entire congressional delegation, who understand WVU's unique land
grant mission of serving the state and its people. They know that
what we do here at West Virginia Universityand the other schools
they representadds value to the states reputation, economy
The problem with such thinking, however, is that the value of local
economic development is not only dependent on federal spending on
higher education, it is imperative to a city or state's economic
well-being. The huge increase in earmark spending projects coincides,
not surprisingly, with the economic surge in high-tech activity
in recent years. Many politicians, planners, and investors around
the country watched as Silicon Valley took shape, helping to create
a booming local economy. Many saw government investments in Stanford
University as the driving force behind the growth. Similarly, the
rise of high-tech businessesand the subsequent high job growthin
and around Boston was credited to government spending at such institutions
as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard.
Thus, the conventional
wisdom was that government spending spurred high-tech economic growth.
And if government spending led to the economic wealth created in
Silicon Valley, politicians decided such wealth could also be created
within their jurisdictions. Thus, government research projects at
institutions of higher education became ripe for the taking, the
same as highway building, military base expansion, or block grants
in urban areas.
But if most
all in the academic world criticize the practice of earmarking funds
for higher education, calling it politically motivated and without
peer review, then why is it so popular and growing? On the one hand,
university presidents and academic organizations condemn the practice
on a theoretical level, but on a practical level they hire lobbyists,
chase down the money, fawn over politicians, and cash the checks.
The answer, of course, is that university presidents are merely
playing the game by the rules that Congress has written.
But does earmarking
truly give smaller educational institutions a leg up and help them
become more prestigious research institutions? University of Virginia
public policy professor James Savage studied the issue and wrote
about the results in his book, Funding Science in America: Congress,
Universities, and the Politics of the Academic Pork Barrel (New
York, Cambridge University Press, 1999). Savage found that funding
programs through earmarking rather than money earned through peer
review made little difference to the long-term improvement in research
compared changes in research rankings of nine of the top 10 states
based on the amount of earmarked funds between 1980 and 1996, he
found that four increased their rank, two declined, and three experienced
no change. When he studied 35 universities that received $40 million
or more between 1980 and 1986, he found similar results: 13 improved
their rank, 10 declined, and the rest were unranked when they received
their first earmark and remain so.
does point out that earmarked funding has the most lasting impact
when it is used in conjunction with peer review funding from such
agencies as NIH and NSF. When an institution used the earmarked
funds to strengthen areas where the school had already earned NIH
and NSF funding, Savage found, the research rankings improved.
finds that the process of earmarking works against the goals of
good higher-education research. "It's got nothing to do with
good science," Savage says of the earmarking process. "It's
all about political influence and who you know . . . . It hurts
scientists who legitimately compete for federal money, submit proposals,
and have them turned down."
In the finite world of university funding, those who gain earmarked
funds are usually taking money away from somewhere else. John Ellwood,
a UC-Berkeley professor of public policy, says that smaller schools
naturally eat into money that might be spent on more prestigious
research schools. "Earmarks started out with relatively prestigious
universities," Ellwood says. "But if you look at the current
list, they are not your most prestigious schools. These are universities
that could not win with scholarship or the quality of their faculty,
but they can still get funds.
"People who are getting [earmarked funds] are the people who
have influence with members of the appropriations committee, whether
they are the best or not," Ellwood continues. "It's a
very old question: How do you choose when you don't have a private
market? Peer review is the way to make sure the best university
Of course, another way to make sure a university wins is to hire
lobbyists. According to a study by The Chronicle of Higher Education,
182 academic institutions employed independent lobbyists in 1999,
spending $18.1 million in the process. Twelve universities spent
more than $200,000 in 1999, according to the study.
The trend of universities spending scarce resources to chase after
politically loaded funding has many uncomfortable. Constance Ewing
Cook, associate professor in the Center for the Study of Higher
Education at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor and author
of "Lobbying for Higher Education: How Colleges and Universities
Influence Federal Policy," says the entire process is necessarily
tainted. "Higher education has become just like every other
special interest lobbying Congress," Cook says. "The image
of higher education suffers when we conduct our business in that
At a time when politicians are cutting taxes and finding ways to
increase spending, changing a system that relies on benefits for
local politicians is not easily done. And members of Congress find
little political benefit either nationally or locally from crusading
against education funding. The electorate cares little if Congress
is funding software research in West Virginia or medical research
in Mississippi. Unless the funding is proved to be outright fraud,
the public will not get outraged if the research grant goes to Podunk
U. instead of Big Prestigious State U.
As many politicians have pointed out, peer review is in itself a
political process of sorts. Those who get to the funding table are
not unlike the big football schools that get voted in to play in
the big bowl games. Earmarking, say some politicians, is just another
political system that is used to award educational funds.
So as the new Congress and new president debate education funding,
university presidents are realizing that they are living and dying
by a sword not of their own choosing, and one that they would prefer
not to use. But even though it is impossible to know how much money
earmarked for colleges and universities Congress will stuff into
bills next year, expect the practice to grow just as it has in the
past decade. Even though President George W. Bush has promised a
tax cut and wants to rein in spending, Republican members of Congress
are promising to fight cuts in higher-education research.
Total educational discretionary spending on higher education is
scheduled to increase by 22 percent to $43.5 billion in 2001. Both
Republicans and Democrats, seeing the popularity of educational
spending among voters, will resist cutting those programs to pay
for Bush's proposed tax cuts. Cutting educational spending would
also ratchet up partisan warfare among leading Democrats against
Bush, something he can ill afford during his presidency's first
year. Also, partisan fighting over earmarked educational funding
makes little sense during the next two years, as Bush needs all
the support he can get in Congress, regardless of which side of
the aisle that support comes from.
So the imperfect system will continue. Universities will spend more
money on lobbyists and researchers will wish they could compete
fairly against each other for federal money. But like college football,
the best team in the country is not always playing for the national
championship. And sometimes the most deserving school will not be
getting the million-dollar grant from Congress. Such is football,
and such is politics. Neither was ever determined to be objective
or fair. Too much money is involved for that.
McGraw is a freelance writer living in Fort Worth, Texas.