Harvard Univ.The U.S. has and still dominates in the number of world-class universities, but changes are needed to maintain that status quo.

The United States has unquestionably and literally the largest number of world-class universities globally. According to the recently released Times Higher Education (THE) World University Rankings 2012-13, there are 76 U.S. universities in the top 200—47 in the top 100—the same number as in the 2011-12 rankings. THE rankings are based on 13 performance indicators calculated by Thomson Reuters that cover teaching, research, knowledge transfer and international outlook. Comparatively, there were only 17 Asian universities in the top 100 and 32 in Europe (including 10 in England).

While the U.S. position in these rankings has not seen any significant change, either up or down, over the past decade, there have been indicators that some changes in the support of U.S. academia might now be appropriate. Falling rates of funding, attendance and investments in U.S. academia—with dramatic increases in foreign universities, especially in Asia—prompted U.S. Congress to ask for a report in 2011. The National Academies of Science and Engineering and the Institute of Medicine was tasked with “assessing the competitive position of American universities, both public and private.” Congress asked that this be done in the form of the top 10 actions Congress, state governments, research universities and others can take to maintain U.S. academic leadership to achieve the country's national goals in the global community of the 21st century.

Ten recommendations

The result of this request was a report titled “Research Universities and the Future of America: Ten Breakthrough Actions Vital to Our Nation's Prosperity and Security” published in June 2012. The report was created by the Committee on Research Universities, which consisted of leaders in academia, industry, government and national laboratories. A summary of the recommended 10 actions follows:

1. The federal government should adopt stable and effective policies, practices and funding for university-performed R&D and graduate education.

2. States should strive to restore appropriations for higher education to levels that allow public research universities to operate at world-class levels, while providing greater autonomy so these institutions may leverage local and regional strengths to compete strategically and respond with agility to new opportunities.

3. The role of business in the research partnership should be strengthened, facilitating the transfer of knowledge, ideas and technology to society and accelerating “time to innovation” in order to achieve national goals.

4. Universities must increase their cost-effectiveness and productivity to provide a greater return on investment for taxpayers, philanthropists, corporations, foundations and other research sponsors.

5. Create a Strategic Investment Program that funds initiatives at research universities critical to advancing education and research in areas of key national priority.

6. The federal government and other research sponsors should strive to cover, in a consistent and transparent manner, the full costs of research projects and other activities procured from research universities.

7. Reduce or eliminate regulations that increase administrative costs, impede research productivity and deflect creative energy without substantially improving the research environment.

8. Improve the capacity of graduate programs to attract talented students by addressing issues such as attrition rates, time to degree, funding and alignment with both student career opportunities and national interests.

9. Secure for the U.S. the full benefits of education for all Americans, including women and minorities, in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

10. Ensure that the U.S. will continue to benefit strongly from the participation of international students and scholars in our research enterprise.

According to a review of the report written by James Duderstadt, president emeritus of the Univ. of Michigan, for the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges: “America is not adequately investing in its research universities, nor has it developed a national strategy to support them. Public universities have seen steep reductions in appropriations per student. Federal support has been declining in real terms, at the same time that other countries have increased funding for academic R&D. American business and industry have similarly not fully partnered with research universities to create the industrial leadership that was found in the past in large corporate research labs.

“The actions recommended in this report will require significant policy changes, productivity enhancement and investments by the federal government, the states, business and philanthropic stakeholders and, most of all, the nation's research universities. We believe these recommendations comprise a fair and balanced program that will result in significant returns to the nation.”

State funding

A separate but associated report—Diminishing Funding and Rising Expectations: Trends and Challenges for Public Research Universities—was released by the National Science Board, the governing body of the National Science Foundation (NSF), in September 2012. This report noted that declines in funding threaten the ability of major public research universities to educate scientists and engineers, recruit and retain the best faculty and students and continue performing top quality research. The NSB stated it is “concerned about the long-term financial health of these institutions.”

In their report, the NSB offered these observations (with no specific recommendations):

1. Increased enrollment and declining state support have occurred in all sectors of the public higher education system—states reduced per-student funding for major research universities by a fifth over the past decade. Continued declines will negatively impact the ability of these universities to provide quality education and training to a diverse student body and affect the universities' ability to attract and retain talent.

2. Increased enrollment in higher education is projected to come mainly from underrepresented minority groups. An increased share of these students are now attending public 2-year or private-for-profit institutions. Public research universities provide research training and access to researchers that are generally unavailable at the 2-year institutions.

3. Reductions in revenue of public research universities and disparities in salaries between public and private research universities can lead to an outflow of talent at public research universities and reduced research capacity.

4. While the Federal subsidized student loan program is evolving, any proposed changes should be carefully examined to avoid unintended consequences to undergraduate and graduate education.

State of academic R&D

While the level of education provided by the U.S.'s top universities may be mostly stable for now, the developed world's lead in higher education for all universities has declined as the number of students in developing countries earning science and engineering degrees has risen. According to the NSF, the U.S. now produces only about 4% of the world's engineering degrees, while nearly 60% are awarded in Asia, including a third in China—about 30% of all university undergraduate degrees earned in China are in engineering. In China, the number of natural science and engineering degrees rose from 280,000 in 2000 to one million in 2008. South Korea, Taiwan and Japan alone produced 330,000 graduates in these fields in 2008, compared to 248,000 in the U.S., despite the U.S. having a population that is about 50% larger than those three countries combined.

The number of natural sciences and engineering doctorates awarded by Chinese universities has more than tripled since 2000 to a number that now exceeds the number of doctorates earned in the U.S. Historically, a large share of U.S. doctorates have been awarded to foreign students (attending our world-class universities), which was an advantage to the U.S. since a large percentage of those foreign students stayed in the U.S. to create new businesses and research programs. For example, nearly 60% of U.S. engineering doctorates have been awarded to foreign students.

Those statistics are also now deteriorating as the rate of increase for the number of foreign students attending U.S. universities has stalled because of immigration concerns and visa-granting delays resulting from the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Although the attacks occurred more than 10 years ago, the immigration issues remain, dramatically affecting U.S. research universities' ability to recruit and retain highly qualified foreign researchers.

During the past decade, the amount of investments spent by U.S. academia has risen each year at nearly twice the rate for both U.S. government and industrial R&D. Much of this is due to outsourcing by government agencies and industrial companies who chose to take advantage of the world-class research resources in academia to efficiently and effectively accomplish their research goals, especially in the basic research arena. U.S. academic institutions, both public and private, spend nearly two-thirds of their research funding on basic research. Look at all of the research reports now published by U.S. researchers and the vast majority of them are either from or associated with U.S. research universities.

Cause for change

“Look at the most highly ranked U.S. universities and they're inevitably the oldest,” says Michael Crow, president of Arizona State Univ. (ASU). “This speaks to the power and prestige afforded to academic institutions doing things the way they've been done for a long time. This is a mistake. Universities have become highly bureaucratized, machine-like creatures. They are rigid, social constructs that produce limited tools, and except for the occasional breakthroughs, they're not producing the kind of radical advances we might expect.”

Crow initiated a series of programs at ASU 10 years ago to create a “New American University.” 

“What we've done over the past 10 years is put ourselves in position to become a model of what a major research university should be,” he says. In those 10 years, ASU has employed leading-edge technologies to improve its educational outcomes. ASU Online, for example, offers 26 undergraduate degrees and 29 graduate degrees to 5,600 students in a fully online environment that provides advising and tutoring as well as instruction.

ASU has also provided technology to help those students who study in a more traditional manner. Students taking classes on-site at one of ASU's four campuses have access to an advising tool, eAdvisor, that's used in coordination with their academic advisors. Students can search eAdvisor for majors according to career interest and academic strengths. The tool also tracks the acquisition of critical skills and courses required to support students' success in their chosen major.

Following implementation of eAdvisor, students increased their on-track progress toward degree completion from 39 to 91% in just four years. The use of eAdvisor, along with other educational efforts, has contributed to an increase in the university's freshman persistence rate—which tracks how students move from their freshman to sophomore years—from 77% in 2006 to 84% today.

During the past 10 years, ASU has more than tripled its research funding to $360 million/year (among the top 20 universities without a medical school). Over the next 10 years, the school plans to double that to $700 million/year, putting it in the same research funding category as the Univ. of California, Berkeley, Texas A&M and MIT. To accomplish this, ASU plans to augment its innovative approach by expanding the number of large transdisciplinary projects, industry contracts and major new research initiatives, enabling the university to build upon its past successes.

Cause for concern

All of the reports and case studies noted earlier for enhancing U.S. academic performance rely for the most part on funding. The Budget Control Act (BCA) of 2011 may crimp some of those plans. Unless some new laws are passed by the end of 2012, the BCA introduces several complex mechanisms that include automatic budget sequestration, which goes into effect on January 1, 2013 and cuts discretionary federal spending (which includes most research funding) by 7 to 9% in 2013 and similar amounts each successive year. That could amount to a total reduction in federal R&D funding by more than $10 billion/year, or $54 billion over five years. Neither Presidential candidate (Barack Obama or Mitt Romney) has mentioned anything they might do to either avert or offset this possible reduction in research funding.

Automatic BCA federal funding reductions have an even larger effect than just cutting the amount of federal research funding. The overall impact across the federal government of these cuts could cut employment from 400,000 to 1.4 million jobs in both direct federal staffers and indirect federal suppliers, according to economic analysts. This would raise the unemployment rate from the current 7.8 to 9.1%. It also could reduce the overall U.S. GDP increase by at least 0.5% (which currently is only estimated to be about 2.3% for 2013), and thus affect industrial R&D spending as well, and by inference academic R&D spending, since much of its research is funded by federal and industrial sources.

The overall U.S. economy is in a tenuous situation, dependent upon effects in the European and Asian economies, so the BCA effects, whether they involve research funding directly or not, are a cause for concern for academic research support in 2013 that is likely to continue for the next decade. Aggressive growth stances like those being taken at ASU may be needed at the majority of the current world-class U.S. universities to maintain leadership.