Universities have been taking it on the chin lately when it comes to funding from both the state and national governments, and the tax bill working its way through Congress threatens to worsen the situation. This short-sighted policy will do lasting harm to our nation’s prosperity. The United States dominates the world in areas as diverse as agriculture, engineering, science, business, and technology, and our success is rooted in our outstanding universities, public and private. Without a commitment to continuing investment in the very educational institutions that have led to our leadership in so many areas, it will not take long for our competitive advantage to erode.
President Donald Trump has threatened deep cuts to many of the programs that fund university research, and the current tax legislation includes a provision to tax the investment income of university endowments (not to mention the many provisions that would significantly increase the financial burden of undergraduate and graduate students). Worsening the situation, states are wrestling with their own budgetary problems, which have led to a significant reduction in their financial support for universities. In Illinois, for example, a budgetary standoff between the governor and the legislature in recent years has led to the state’s universities receiving a fraction of their usual funding.
If this trend isn’t reversed, it will have disastrous consequences for our nation. Most of the cutting-edge research on agriculture or the life-sciences, for example, is conducted in universities. In perhaps the clearest proof of the excellence of our universities, students flock from around the globe to attend a university in this country. And if we truly opened our borders to foreign students, those numbers would rise even higher. There is no educational option more appealing than studying in the U.S and learning from the brilliant minds working in our many exceptional universities.
We need only look to our own history to see a better path forward. In 1862, in the middle of the American Civil War, Abraham Lincoln with the help of a visionary representative from the state of Vermont, Justin Smith Morrill, passed the land-grant act (Morrill Act), which helped the nation build public universities in every state. Millions of Americans have benefitted from this vision over the past 155 years. Meanwhile, private universities were also being built by visionary entrepreneurs, which allowed the young nation to have an abundance of higher education options for its growing population. This vast expansion of our system of higher education laid the foundation for the nation’s ongoing prosperity.
As educators, there are actions we can take to build support for our mission among both legislators and the public. First, we need to do more to show what we do inside our walls. Even someone who works across the street from a university campus rarely knows a faculty or a staff member or has any sense of what we do. Too often derided as out-of-touch ivory towers, we need to show that we are, in fact, bustling marketplaces of ideas. So, when we ask legislators to send tax dollars to our universities, we should also invite them to visit our classrooms and show them our exciting and innovative programs.
Second, we need to remind people of the very real value of a higher education. It has become fashionable to downplay the role of higher education, and ask for its “return on investment.” As a business dean for over a decade, I have no problem with applying the concept of ROI because that is an argument universities should be able to win every time. Parents frequently ask me about the value of higher education, and I always tell them the same thing. If you want to give your children a bright future and make sure that they have the opportunity to pursue the American dream, there is no better path than higher education. Most Americans already know this. Of course, some cynics will point to the success of college dropouts such as Mark Zuckerberg. What they fail to add is that today Facebook only hires the most brilliant graduates from our top public and private universities, not the college dropouts. The same holds true of Google, Apple, and virtually any of the most dynamic companies in America.
Educators and legislators must both do their part to ensure that the excellence of our universities is not eroded by neglect. Universities must open their doors and engage the public and also hold the line on tuition increases. At the same time, we need the next Justin/Jane Morrill to step up to the plate and ensure that our universities continue to enrich the minds of our children for the next 155 years. Our competitive advantage—indeed, the very success of our nation—depends on it.
Ali Malekzadeh is president of Roosevelt University in Chicago.