Cutting Student Aid and Research Funding Will Hurt Competitiveness

By Richard L. McCormick, President
As submitted; published in the Star-Ledger on March 6, 2011

Memo to Capitol Hill: As you address a mounting national deficit, do not shut off college to the poor, and do not cut funding for science. To do so would put our nation’s future in even greater peril.

You can debate the value of exotic undergraduate courses or argue the appropriateness of big-time athletics, but there is no question that the nation’s colleges and universities have contributed enormously to American’s preeminent economic standing in the world. Expanding access to a college education through initiatives such as the G.I. Bill and educational-opportunity programs has raised the skill level and the earning level of tens of millions of Americans in the past 60 years. Federal funding for scientific research on university campuses, meanwhile, has yielded innovations and products that have created jobs in virtually every major industry.

At a time when China and other nations are ramping up their higher education systems (modeled on our success) and pouring billions of dollars of new funding into research and development, the United States can ill afford to fall further behind in producing highly skilled college graduates or generating groundbreaking research. Yet in seeking the worthy aim of deficit reduction, the House’s yearlong Continuing Resolution, H.R. 1, would take the country pointedly and dangerously in that direction.

The maximum Pell grant, which supports the most disadvantaged students we have on our campuses, would be slashed by 15 percent under H.R. 1. This is money that our poorest students can’t make up. Chances are strong that many of these students will be forced to drop out of school or will fail to enroll at all. Can our nation afford to turn more young people away from the college gates, when the unemployment rate is more than twice as high for adults without a bachelor’s degree?

Pell recipients go on to productive lives and more than repay their grants in contributing to the public good as doctors, teachers, businesspeople, and hard-working taxpayers. Some become Fortune 500 CEOs, like Motorola’s Greg Brown, or Pulitzer Prize winners, like author Junot Díaz. Others become U.S. Senators, like Robert Menendez, or Rhodes Scholars, like entrepreneur Randal Pinkett. And that’s just from my own university. I’m certain my colleagues from across the country can match this list with their own. The Pell program has made a college degree possible for these leaders and for millions of other Americans.

H.R. 1 also cuts funding for all the major agencies that support scientific and engineering research. The National Institutes of Health, which is funding a study at Rutgers to help urologists to better detect prostate cancer, would lose more than $1.5 billion. The National Science Foundation (NSF), whose grant related to digital library research led to the creation of Google, would lose nearly $360 million. The Department of Energy’s Office of Science would be cut by 18 percent.

This is money that could be going to university researchers developing renewable fuels or advancing a cancer vaccine or using nanotechnology to purify water cheaply and efficiently. Just as important, this funding could be helping to support a doctoral student working in the lab. Graduate students, especially in the sciences and engineering, are the very people we need to help prepare for leadership in industry, academia, and government. At precisely the moment America needs to reestablish its dominance in science and engineering, H.R. 1 would seriously restrict the pipeline of talent.

To his credit, President Obama’s budget proposal for Fiscal Year 2012 continues the investments in research that are needed to expand our economy and address social, medical, and environmental imperatives. In this way, he is following the example of President Ronald Reagan, who signed bipartisan legislation calling for the doubling of NSF funding. The Obama proposal, however, disappointingly eliminates an important loan subsidy for graduate students, a step that may further discourage our best and brightest from pursuing advanced degrees.

China is leading the way in solar energy production. India is staking a claim in nanotechnology. As a United States Conference of State Legislatures report concluded five years ago, “The American higher education system no longer is the best in the world. Other countries outrank and outperform us.” Constricting university research, discouraging top students, and making higher education unreachable for our poorest citizens are hardly the ways back to the top.