Scholars have joined the joyless chorus. For many of them, American universities have transformed themselves into market-oriented enterprises, barely different from corporations: They charge exorbitant fees, effectively excluding students from the bottom half of the socioeconomic hierarchy; they shortchange students’ educational experiences by obsessing over the bottom line; they have created a caste system with low-paid adjuncts doing most of the teaching.
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Scholars have joined the joyless chorus. For many of them, American universities have transformed themselves into market-oriented enterprises, barely different from corporations: They charge exorbitant fees, effectively excluding students from the bottom half of the socioeconomic hierarchy; they shortchange students’ educational experiences by obsessing over the bottom line; they have created a caste system with low-paid adjuncts doing most of the teaching. In the scramble for dollars, these critics assert, universities have forsaken their social and cultural responsibilities.
The truly puzzling feature of this narrative is how little relation it bears to reality. Far from supporting this gloomy perspective, the statistical evidence suggests that American universities have never been stronger or more prominent in public life than they are now. At major research universities, from 1980 to 2010, research expenditures grew by more than 10 times in inflation-adjusted dollars, while high-quality publications cataloged in the Web of Science grew by nearly three times. Few, if any, sectors were as important to the emerging knowledge economy as universities, and the federal government supported their development with high, if never fully sufficient, funding. Federal R&D funding, estimated at more than $30 billion in 2017, is largely responsible for the explosive growth of research during this period. The federal financial-aid system provided essential fuel for higher education’s expansion, doling out about $65 billion in Pell Grants, work-study funds, and tax benefits in 2015 — not counting the hundreds of billions of dollars in loans that are also available through federal lending. Both support systems have trended sharply upward in inflation-adjusted dollars since the 1980s, including during recessionary periods.
Higher education’s critics may assume that as tuition has increased, demand for college degrees would plummet. The opposite has been true. The growth in undergraduate enrollments has been steady during periods of recession and prosperity alike. The 20 million students who now attend higher-education institutions represent a college-going group nearly 100 times larger than in 1900 and nearly 10 times larger than in 1950, far outpacing population growth. Graduate degrees also became more common. By 2015 more than 25 million Americans held advanced degrees (master’s and above), a cohort larger than the combined population of the five largest American cities. As much as students may resent higher tuition, they continue to think of college as a good investment — and they are right. In 2015, economists at Georgetown University estimated that the average college graduate earned $1 million more than the average high-school graduate over the course of a working life.
Even during the depths of the Great Recession, the idea of a “crisis of the public university” was badly exaggerated (a 2011 Chronicle essay by that title proclaimed that “public higher education is dying”). While a few professors and the press dwelled on the recession as a period in which the sky was falling, the mean salaries for assistant, associate, and full professors actually increased a little between the 2007-8 and 2012-13 academic years, as did average staff size and the asset value of endowments. Yes, some campuses suffered from tight budgets, but a look at the system as a whole makes clear that parents and students were willing to pay higher tuition to compensate for declining state support, and that universities were, by and large, successful in controlling costs and diversifying their revenue bases.
As I have pored over the evidence, I have come to a conclusion very different than the one suggested by pessimistic professors and an alarmist press: Beyond the din of the latest protests about sexual violence on campus or controversial speakers causing an uproar, some remarkably positive trends have left American universities bigger, stronger, and in a more influential position than ever before.
Just as the telecommunications industry anticipates the day when every person owns a smartphone, so, too, does higher education anticipate the day when every qualified person will hold a degree, credential, or certificate. At the undergraduate level, market saturation is well advanced. According to research conducted by the sociologist James Rosenbaum and his co-authors on a 2004 cohort of high-school graduates, nearly 90 percent of on-time graduates enrolled in a college (including community colleges) within eight years of their high-school graduation. Moreover, the rates of college entry were similar across demographic groups. Among African-American members of the cohort, for example, rates of college entry were well above 80 percent. College graduation is the next frontier, and here there is still plenty of room for growth, with six-year graduation rates only recently beginning to surpass 50 percent nationwide.
Professional master’s-degree subjects like accounting, business, education, engineering, and public administration have seen phenomenal growth. The number of master’s degrees conferred in all fields went up by 60 percent from 2000 to 2014. Universities developed these programs not only in response to student and employer demand, but also because they could price them at rates that made them self-supporting. Rapidly growing master’s fields include biology, computer science, homeland security, and health science.
Students pursue master’s degrees to delay entry into the labor market, to gain new knowledge or make new contacts, to raise their salaries, to qualify for doctoral programs, or just to try out a field that they think aligns with their interests. Universities, sensitized to market opportunities, deploy battalions of planners to establish footholds in up-and-coming master’s fields before competitors are able to do so. Some of these efforts are simply avaricious, but most speak to the agility and responsiveness of universities under the influence of market logic.
Virtually every institution has grown at least a little larger over time, including selective liberal-arts colleges, which have the most to gain by remaining exclusive. A common view from the 1960s was that research universities could reach economies of scale by increasing enrollment up to 20,000, but that beyond that point quality suffered. By the fall of 2015, the 20,000-student rule of thumb had been superseded by well over 100 colleges and universities, including the University of Texas at Austin, with 51,000 students; New York University, with 50,000; and the University of Wisconsin at Madison, with 43,000.
What is causing this growth? The return-on-investment value of a college degree is the major cause, but the ambitions of administrators should not be discounted. When I surveyed presidents of more than 300 colleges about which institutions they would like theirs to resemble in 10 years’ time, those who responded consistently indicated that they wanted to move up in the hierarchy — those in the public sector by adding more degree programs and greater research intensity, and those in the private sector by becoming more selective while expanding the size of their entering classes at least a little. In an interview, Michael M. Crow, president of Arizona State University, put it this way: “We should be covering not only the waterfront, but the waterfront and then some.” (Arizona State enrolled nearly 100,000 students across its campuses as of fall 2016.) Or, as another large institution, the University of Central Florida, proclaims in its provost-search brochure: “UCF is breaking the mold of exclusivity in higher education by proving that bigger is better.”
Colleges are not always successful at advancing students’ cognitive development. Yet as degrees — and especially advanced degrees — become more common, colleges are able, little by little, to extend their values and characteristic ways of thinking into the national culture. They cultivate the ability to think abstractly and to gather and weigh evidence using conceptual frameworks. Concepts like emotional intelligence, self-efficacy, social capital, transaction costs, and stakeholders originated in the work of academic social scientists but have become part of common parlance. The humanities have also made important advances: for instance, in our understanding of the culture and history of areas outside Europe and North America. They have made breakthroughs in text analysis, such as demonstrating that the Old Testament was composed in multiple layers, and they have given us an entirely new way of looking at the world as constructed by “epistemic regimes.”
The values of universities are also saturating society more fully, even as they face stiff resistance, particularly from the political and religious right. Apart from the search for understanding, perhaps the most important of these values is social inclusion. When I examined 69 colleges’ strategic plans in the mid-2000s, the only goal other than the pursuit of excellence they all agreed upon was diversification. How much less would we know about the histories and cultures of minority, female, and LGBTQ students without the academy’s commitment to diversity? These commitments have acquired a moral force that has been reinforced by colleges’ market interests. The dedication to social inclusion suggests a path for the future: We are in the midst of debates about whether and how to expand universities’ commitments to first-generation students, as well as to political conservatives. (A recent Pew Research Center survey showed that a majority of Republicans now think colleges do more harm than good.) It is within the capacity of academe to win back the allegiance of those who have felt left out by providing solid skills and perhaps also by drawing them into evidence-based debate and dialogue.
In inflation-adjusted dollars, research expenditures at major research universities increased tenfold from 1980 to 2010. Research publications also grew rapidly. (As of 2014, the Web of Science indexed 12,000 journals and 160,000 conference proceedings in more than 250 disciplines and reached a total count of 90 million records and more than a billion citations.) As the number of tenured and tenure-track professors has not grown nearly as fast as the output of the labs and research groups they direct, the increase suggests the importance of new methods for increasing output within academe. These include labor-saving technologies, such as more-powerful computer software; the growing importance of cross-disciplinary and cross-institutional collaborations, allowing for enhanced productivity through the division of labor; the growth of the postdoctoral research staff; and the changing norms of graduate-student publication. Many new Ph.D.s have publication records that would have been sufficient for advancement to tenure in previous generations.
Research productivity is concentrated among a very few of the 3,000-plus four-year colleges and universities in the United States — the top 200 institutions produce the vast majority of research. But the more remarkable fact is the steady and impressive growth in research output across virtually all of these leading producers. Cynthia Carr and I tracked the output of research universities over three decades. Only 23 of the 188 institutions that reported data throughout the period experienced declines in publication counts in any one of those decades, only 10 showed declines in citations, and only eight experienced declines in inflation-adjusted dollar R&D expenditures. And though those few faltered, ambitious new campuses, such as the University of South Florida’s, joined the ranks of the top producers and contributed to the research explosion.
Critics have argued that much of this output is trivial, a product of scholars’ padding their CVs by slicing their research findings into the smallest publishable units (a practice sometimes known as “salami publishing”). No doubt these tactics do come into play. But even the thinnest publication has to contribute enough to pass peer review, and by definition well-cited articles and books have had to reach at least a sizable academic community. Indeed, the people who have high cumulative citation counts are, in general, the most influential researchers, something taken for granted in science. And in the humanities and social sciences? Citation-count leader lists are dotted with names like Noam Chomsky, Michel Foucault, Thomas Kuhn, Michael Porter, John Rawls, Clifford Geertz, Albert Bandura, and Robert Putnam. Who would deny their eminence and influence?
If we focus too much on the careerist games that scholars sometimes play, we can lose track of the genuine contributions they make. Advances in immunotherapy treatments for cancer, new methods of separation and purification in chemical engineering, modeling the rate and consequences of climate change in environmental science — these and thousands of other important topics have been illuminated through the painstaking work of academic researchers.
Universities would not have succeeded without federal funding, and that funding has also profoundly shaped the trajectory of certain disciplines. The federal government’s largess is heavily weighted toward the natural and applied sciences, while the arts and humanities are handicapped by relatively sparse funding. The federally favored disciplines (counting money that flowed to universities, federal research centers, and corporations’ research efforts) in 2017 were National Institutes of Health life sciences ($26.2 billion), engineering ($12.9 billion), other life sciences ($6.4 billion), physics ($6 billion), math and computer science ($4.3 billion), environmental science ($4.2 billion), and psychology ($2.1 billion). By contrast, the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities each received about $150 million in recent years — a small fraction of what the hard sciences received.
A similar pattern holds for philanthropic contributions, which have added billions in research investments. Unquestionably, the Medicis of our era, like federal patrons, have been primarily interested in a scientific and technological, not an artistic or humanistic, renaissance. Using data from the Foundation Center and the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis, my research team found that the natural sciences received 77 gifts of more than a million dollars in the year 2000. The humanities received just 18 such gifts. Undoubtedly, shifting patronage (and enrollments) alters the balance of power and therefore the character of the campus. Where philosophiae ratio once in spirit reigned, numerorum ratio now in practice counts. Engineering and the life sciences have replaced philosophy as anchors of academic life.
Indeed, universities may have transformed business more than business has transformed universities. This goes beyond the emulation of the architecture and common spaces of university campuses by high-tech giants, or the similarities in the research environments of the two. It means also that university-trained individuals are at the center of a large chunk of the American economy and are contributing to the development of new wealth and new jobs.
Knowledge-sector industries — those in which at least 10 percent of the work force is made up of individuals with advanced degrees — now contribute nearly half of the United States’ GDP and include many of the fastest-growing industries in the country: internet services, computer-software design, telecommunications, management consulting, and investment banking, for instance. Professors and other college instructors are ourselves a large occupational group.
The number of postsecondary faculty members nearly doubled from 1987 to 2015; according to the U.S. Department of Education data, as of 2015 there are more than 1.5 million of us working at colleges and universities. A large part of this growth is due to the rapid increase in part-time faculty from 1999 to 2011, though since 2011 the number of full-time faculty has continued to grow, while the number of part-time faculty has shrunk by 4 percent.
The direct contributions of academic researchers to technology development are at least as important. Of the 50 most important inventions created from 1955 to 2005 (as identified by a panel of experts), my research shows that academic researchers played the most important role in eight of them: coronary-bypass surgery, DNA fingerprinting, fuel cells, genetic engineering, genetic sequencing, in vitro fertilization, the MRI, and the polio vaccine. They also played a “very important” role in 12 others, typically sharing center stage with corporate, government, or nonprofit researchers on projects like Arpanet (forerunner of the internet), fiber optics, high-yield rice, the MP3 player, and the pacemaker. This is an impressive record considering the much higher proportion of total R&D — at least three times as much — carried out by corporations as opposed to universities.
At the same time, without outstanding graduate training, corporate researchers would lack the tools to make advances: Gregory Pincus would not have made the synthesis that led to the birth-control pill, Kary Mullis would not have discovered the polymerase chain reaction, and Gerd Binnig and Heinrich Rohrer would not have invented the scanning tunneling microscope that has become essential to nanoscale research.
At the time of the passage of the Bayh-Dole Act, in 1980, which eased restrictions on university patenting, American universities were generating only about 300 patents a year. In 2014 they generated nearly 6,000. This figure represents a drop in the bucket compared with the total of patenting activity in the United States. But universities’ contribution to new inventions is further underscored by more foundational work: In 2013 academics published two-thirds of the more than 300,000 science-and-engineering articles cited in U.S.-approved patents.
It turns out that opportunities to collaborate with top academic researchers are a big draw for science-based industries. In statistical studies, the management scholars Lynne Zucker and Michael Darby have established that the location of star scientists and engineers in a given region has a “consistently significant and quantitatively large positive effect on the probability of firm entry in the same area of science and technology.” The magnetic quality of star researchers — and in some cases their own entrepreneurial activities — has led to the development of high-tech industrial clusters around university campuses, not only in the canonical cases of Silicon Valley and the Research Triangle but also in such places as Ann Arbor, Austin, Boulder, and Salt Lake City.
Given the abundant evidence of the growth and growing prominence of American universities, why does crisis imagery suffuse discussion of U.S. higher education? The most important reason is that there are real problems. Higher education is costly, and some students take on unmanageable debt. The quality of classroom instruction is uneven, and many students do not learn as much as they could. Universities are increasingly reliant on poorly paid and sometimes poorly prepared adjunct instructors. Some students from disadvantaged backgrounds do not feel accepted or treated well on campus, and some political conservatives do not feel that they can express themselves freely. These challenges can be met successfully, but it will take more effort than campus administrators and political leaders have so far demonstrated.
In addition, those who are dissatisfied with their experiences in higher education (or with what they have heard about higher education) have an interest in stories that paint universities in an unflattering light. This demand for criticism is met by a steady supply of verbally adept critics who fail to appreciate the industry’s strengths.
Whether from left or right, critics see little but misdirection and incoherence in academics’ disparate aspirations for advancing disciplinary professionalism, pursuing technological innovation, and supporting social inclusion. Yet, in fact, the relationships among those three logics of development, far from producing disintegration and decline, have contributed to the dynamism of the whole.
Sources for charts: