Sluggish Support for Public Universities Threatens U.S. Pre-eminence in Higher Education, Report Says
By Karin Fischer
Shaky state financial support for public research universities threatens American higher education's global standing, says a new working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research that examines trends in scientific publications.
Since the 1980s, the growth of scientific research, as measured by scholarly papers and citations, in Europe and East Asia has outpaced that of American universities, in part because countries in those regions have dedicated significant resources to higher education. The American share of world scientific citations, for example, dropped from 52 percent in 1992 to 42 percent in 2003.
But James D. Adams, a professor of economics at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, points to another culprit.
In the paper, "Is the U.S. Losing Its Preeminence in Higher Education?," Mr. Adams documents a slowdown in scientific publications by American researchers in the 1990s, following a long period of significant growth, with the total number of papers falling from 139,168 in 1995 to 138,472 in 1999. (The total has since increased to 159,972 in 2005.)
While the growth of papers from researchers at private universities decelerated during that time, Mr. Adams writes, "it virtually stops in public universities."
Why? Although Mr. Adams notes that federal research support expands at a faster rate at public universities, that growth is counteracted by sluggish increases in state appropriations for higher education.
Mr. Adams examined data for 110 public and private U.S. institutions, which account for 80 percent of all academic research spending. The data, which was collected from 1982 to 1999, includes information on publications, citations, tuition, endowment revenue, and state financial support.
During that time, Mr. Adams found, tuition revenue at private universities grew 124 percent. By contrast, the cumulative growth in tuition revenue plus state appropriations at public universities increased by just 46 percent.
None of the other variables he studied, such as long-term investments in research and numbers of graduate research assistants, accounted for the differences in the growth of scientific papers and citations between public and private institutions, he said.
The trends in state financial support have indirect effects on research, Mr. Adams said. For example, total compensation for faculty members at private colleges rises about 1 percent a year faster than for their public-university counterparts. That could provide an incentive for top scientists to move to private universities, he said.
Although his data is retrospective, Mr. Adams said he is concerned about the pressures now facing most public research universities, given the glum budget forecasts in most states.
The slowdown of investment in a critical sector of American higher education could have a persistent effect on U.S. pre-eminence globally, especially as other countries continue to invest in universities and research. Indeed, several members of Congress have asked the National Academies to carry out a study of the status of the American research university, motivated, in part, by awareness that it is no longer possible to take for granted the dominant position of American universities in the world.
But the growth in industrialized countries means that the United States is likely to continue to see a decline in its share of scientific-research output, even if changes are made to public-university financing, Mr. Adams said.
Still, "the point isn't what they're doing. The point is what we are doing," Mr. Adams said in an interview. "It's a threat that's an internal threat."
The paper, which is part of a forthcoming volume on American universities in a global higher-education market, is available to subscribers or for purchase on the bureau's Web site.