ASEE Prism Magazine
 

Congressional spending on academia is at an all-time high, and universities with access to powerful members tend to get dealt better hands.

By Dan McGraw
Illustration by Edel Rodriguez

For 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 criteria.

Of 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.

As 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.

But 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.

Higher-education 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 competitions—which are not unlike competitive bidding—and opens the process to a wider number of institutions.

But 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.

“The 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."

Neal 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 funds.

Friends 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.

For example, 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 funding.

The argument 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 agency."

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 University—and the other schools they represent—adds value to the states reputation, economy and stature."

New 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 businesses—and the subsequent high job growth—in 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 rankings.

When Savage 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.

But Savage 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.

Still, Savage 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 wins."

Hired Guns
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 way."


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.

Dan McGraw is a freelance writer living in Fort Worth, Texas.