The Top Two Higher Education Goals for the New Congress

by Brian Herman, Published on December 3, 2014

When the new Congress is sworn in come January, it should add two important items for the agenda concerning higher education – both of which have a direct impact on U.S. competitiveness and technological preeminence.

Higher education has become highly regulated. It’s at the point that teaching students and conducting research is a secondary occupation for educators. Responding to government reporting requirements is fighting for primacy — and winning.

At the same time, federal cuts to scientific research are having a major impact on campuses around the country. The next generation of U.S. researchers is abandoning research for other fields of endeavor because federal funds, which had underwritten many campus laboratories and researchers for so many years, are in retreat.

That’s why the top two goals of the new Senate when it comes to higher education should be these:

First, cut regulations. Almost 50 percent of the cost of performing research at a higher education institution is devoted to regulatory and compliance activities. The National Science Foundation’s National Science Board found that “the administrative workload placed on federally funded researchers at U.S. institutions is interfering with the conduct of science in a form and to an extent substantially out of proportion to the well-justified need to ensure accountability, transparency and safety.”

And that’s just the scientific research portion of higher education.

The Chronicle of Higher Education documented the plight of Hartwick College in Oneonta, N.Y. Margaret L. Drugovich, president of Hartwick, tallied up all the school’s compliance activities in a year. What she found highlights the make-work and associated costs universities and colleges now must dedicate to government-mandated rules and regulations.

She found that 100 employees and six contractors spent 7,200 hours responding to more than 60 federal, state, and local government agencies and other groups. The cost was about $300,000 for Hartwick to comply with 247 rules over just one year.

Now extrapolate that across the country and over several years and the true cost of the problem begins to emerge. Congress needs to take an axe, not a scalpel, to these regulations encumbering higher education.

Second, reverse research spending cuts. Federal research and development spending at universities is under fire, a predicament that has stark implications for the nation, for our economy, for our ability to solve human kind’s most pressing problems.

Federal biomedical research funds have declined by 25 percent in real dollars over the last decade. The National Institutes of Health NIH, the world’s largest source of medical research funding, is approving about half as many proposals as before. “Federal funding cuts–especially as a result of sequestration–jeopardize the groundbreaking research taking place at institutions around the country,” says the Association of American Medical Colleges.

The federal investment in science and technology has led to the U.S. assuming a leadership role in the world in a relatively short period of time. U.S. industries depend on universities to provide them much of the early knowledge, and even proof of commercial value, of a given technology. One can make the economic argument that the aggregate investment in university-conducted research is of equal value, if not greater, than industry research.

Of course, there are additional pressing issues regarding higher education that Congress should examine. But if these two major problems can be solved, then others will fall away.

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