Opinion: Higher Education in America Finds Itself on a Slippery Slope

Our great research universities risk getting left behind

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A decade ago I chaired a committee that was established on a bipartisan basis by members of the House and Senate to assess America’s future economic competitiveness. The committee’s 20 members included CEOs of Fortune 100 companies, former presidential appointees, presidents of major public and private universities and three Nobel laureates. Upon completion of our work, two of our members joined the then-president’s Cabinet, one as secretary of Energy and the other as secretary of Defense.

The document we produced, which became known as the “Gathering Storm Report,” concluded that the top two priorities for America to remain competitive in the global marketplace were to strengthen education and to double our investment in basic research.

So what has happened in the decade since our study? Our recommendations have been followed quite faithfully … but by America’s principal economic competitors. China, for example, increased its investment in basic research by a factor of four and will surpass the U.S. in R&D this year. Meanwhile, American federal investment in research increased only slightly, virtually all in the health sciences. In education, the most recognized international test of academic accomplishment had America’s 15-year-olds continuing to fall during the past three years. They went from 17th to 21st place in science and from 25th to 26th place in math, among nations in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. In such tests, the children of laborers in Shanghai surpassed those of professionals here.

Our report also concluded that America’s most significant long-term economic advantage, together with our democracy and free enterprise system, was our collection of great research universities, which at the time occupied the top five spots in the global rankings including 18 of the top 25. We could never have imagined that these very same institutions would soon come under assault. Ironically, the attackers were neither Chinese intellectual property thieves nor Russian hackers; rather, in the words of that great philosopher Pogo, “We have met the enemy — and he is us.”

America’s research universities educate some of the world’s best and brightest students, many of whom arguably form the backbone of the nation’s research enterprise. But today, as soon as those foreign students receive their degrees, our laws drive them out of the country — presumably so they can compete “against” us.

Worse yet, as many states disinvested in higher education, draconian budget reductions prompted large increases in tuition and student debt, placing higher education further out of reach of many of our own citizens. Compounding the dilemma, as state universities sought new sources of revenue, they focused on attracting foreign students who would pay higher tuition. And today, those students make up 73 percent of U.S. graduate degree candidates in science and engineering.

Our universities narrowly escaped, at least for the moment, a federal provision that would have treated graduate students’ tuition waivers as taxable income — the same students who perform much of the nation’s basic research as an integral part of their education. What some of our nation’s most competitive universities couldn’t escape was a federal tax on the earnings of their endowments. In other words, the federal government will now be confiscating money that could otherwise be devoted to research and scholarships.

This hits particularly close to home. As a young man in Colorado, I was the first in my family to be given the opportunity to attend college. That opportunity was largely paid out of the endowment funds of one of the very universities that now find their endowment gains taxed. Without the scholarships such funds provided, I’m not sure I could have attended college. I most likely could not have attended the Ivy League school from which I graduated. My career culminated with my serving as CEO of a firm with 180,000 employees, 82,000 of whom were highly innovative, job-creating engineers.

And it’s not just jobs that are at stake. Diminished institutions of higher education mean fewer vaccines and cures. It means more voters without educations in science, history, public policy, literature and ethics. It means the weakening of our military, the underpinning of which resides squarely on a strong economy and advancing technology. (Just ask the Soviet Union.)

As support for our educational system becomes increasingly politicized, a significant number of people are now questioning the very “worth” of a higher education — even though it has long been one of the pillars of the American dream itself.

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