President Barack Obama’s heart was in the right place when he made his Valentine’s Day visit to a technology middle school in Parkville. Yet even as the president sought to encourage investment in education, the new spending plans of both the administration and House Republicans spell bad news for America’s role as a knowledge and innovation leader.
Maybe the word hasn’t reached everyone in Washington, but the global innovation sweepstakes is definitely on, and the competition is brutal. Our foreign (primarily Asian) rivals are in furious catch-up mode. They invest huge sums in research and development. They graduate astounding numbers of students with advanced degrees in science and engineering. And it was just announced that China’s economy has become the world's second-largest. While it still trails the U.S. economy, its rate of growth far outpaces ours.
Our competitors can be found not just in China and India. Two years ago, the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology opened in Saudi Arabia, with a $10 billion endowment. It evidently aspires to be the MIT of the Middle East, and with an endowment of that size, it stands a good chance of success. (The actual MIT, founded more than 140 years ago in Massachusetts, would have to add about $2 billion to its endowment to equal that of the Saudi school.)
America in the 19th century made the conscious decision to invest greatly in higher education. By the arrival of the 20th century, the U.S. university system had surpassed the European model, thanks in no small part to the pioneering example set by The Johns Hopkins University. But, as University of Iowa President Sally Mason has warned, “Without a sea-change in [America's] support of its universities, a similar pattern will play itself out in today’s world, with Asia eclipsing the United States.”
Faced with such challenges, then, how do our government leaders respond? By proposing a budgetary approach that might well be titled “Race to the Bottom.”
Consider the cuts to Pell Grants that the president and House Republicans have suggested. These grants help our neediest students earn the college degrees so essential to success in today’s global knowledge economy. As U.S. Department of Education figures show, college students from families earning $45,000 or less are twice as likely to drop out as students from families that earn $70,000 or more. Cost can be a decisive factor—increasingly so as tuitions climb.
The United States’ college graduation rate was once the world's highest, but the latest figures from the College Board show that the U.S. ranks 12th internationally in the percentage of 25-to-34-year-olds who hold at least an associate’s degree. President Obama has set the ambitious goal of putting the U.S. back atop that list by 2020. Can we do it? Not by putting obstacles on the pathway to college. Besides the Pell cuts, a proposal from the White House would cause graduate students’ loans to start accruing interest immediately, rather than after graduation. This extra financial burden would only discourage more American students from pursuing advanced degrees, just when we need to be encouraging them.
The GOP has suggested additional—and equally shortsighted—reductions to the funding for two of our greatest engines of research and discovery, the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation. An unwise move, given that scientists in China have been cranking out reams of research for the past 15 years, lifting that country from 14th place internationally to second, behind the U.S., in published research articles.
Discretionary spending on items related to education and research must be viewed as a crucial investment in our future. Our overseas counterparts apparently get it. For years, they have been busy emphasizing subjects such as math and science, producing armies of knowledge workers, and creating hothouses of research and innovation, while we seem to have lost much of the focus and energy that characterized the “American Century” of the 1900s.
Certainly, our financial house needs to be put in order, but there are better ways—for instance, trimming fat from defense spending and from other discretionary items—rather than the suggestions coming from both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue that pose risks to our long-term ability to innovate and compete.
This is a shortened version of an op-ed that appeared in the Baltimore Sun on Feb. 21, 2011.