Commentary

Pork U. : Higher Education’s Scramble for Federal Cash

This article appeared on Reason Online on March 1, 2005.

Recently, The Chronicle of Higher Education—academia’s unofficial newspaper of record—examined President Bush’s 2006 budget. Predictably, its coverage was packed with lamentations about miserly funding for numerous programs. However, it also exposed a possible sign of what higher education’s lobbying can buy, a sign worth noting as Congress prepares to reauthorize the Higher Education Act this year.

The sign came in an analysis of funding for the National Institutes of Health (NIH)—the largest single source of money for academic research—for which Bush requested a 0.7 percent increase, a boost the newspaper identified as falling “far short of the rate of inflation in biomedical research.”

Presumably, such tight funding is troublesome because vital research might not be conducted. But according to the Chronicle, that did not appear to be NIH Director Elias A. Zerhouni’s main concern. What seemed to trouble him was that “one of his top priorities was to preserve opportunities for scientists…to win NIH grants,” and budget cuts made that tougher. The newspaper further indicated that Zerhouni felt that “the number of researchers who receive NIH awards…is more important than the number of grants awarded.”

But then, it looks like higher education research already gets more government money than it needs. As Ohio University economist Richard Vedder writes in Going Broke By Degree: Why College Costs Too Much, “There is no question that some academic research is highly beneficial to society….however…in the absence of federal grants to universities, a significant portion of that research would be done anyhow, and some that would be discontinued is of dubious value in any case.”

Vedder notes that much research gets funding after it is almost complete. Researchers use the money for costs they would have been willing to assume themselves given the prestige their research would bring them. In addition, universities often undertake research the private sector would be willing to do.

Of course, higher education’s use of government funds to enrich itself is hardly restricted to science. Vedder explains that constantly, “university presidents ask legislatures for more funds to keep costsdown for students and improve educational opportunities,” but then turn around and “use most of the money to fund large salary increases, add staff members…build more luxurious facilities, and expand research projects….”

Academia’s representatives, naturally, say higher education works for the public good. For instance, the American Council on Education (ACE), which represents over 1,800 higher education institutions, claims that it “fosters greater collaboration and new partnerships within and outside the higher education community to help colleges and universities…contribute to a stronger nation and a better world.”

But such rhetoric is wearing thin. As recently explained in the Chronicle Review by Florida International University professor of higher education Michael D. Parsons, to many people “higher education has become just another special interest seeking a federal handout.”

A look at academia’s advocacy machine confirms this view. According to the Chronicle, between 1999 and 2003 higher education’s lobbying expenditures nearly doubled, reaching $61.7 million by 2003. In addition, over 30 higher education associations, whose combined 2003 expenditures topped $425 million, are located in Washington, D.C.

The investment seems to be paying off. In the NIH budget article, for instance, the reporters noted that Congress actually doubled the NIH’s funding between 1999 and 2003. Similarly, according to the College Board’s Trends in Student Aid 2004, total inflation-adjusted federal student aid—which ultimately ends up in the pockets of colleges and universities—more than doubled between the 1993-94 and 2003-04 academic years, totaling more than $81 billion in 2003-04.

The most direct payoff, however, has been in higher education “pork”—projects earmarked for specific schools rather than awarded through competitive grants—which, according to the Chronicle, rose from $296 million in 1996 to over $2 billion in 2003.

How do colleges and universities get such projects? “Members of Congress…choose recipients…based on their own judgments, often after lobbying by the colleges seeking the money,” according to the newspaper.

Academia’s lobbyists want us to believe they only have the public good in mind when they ask for taxpayer money. We’ll hear that more and more as the Higher Education Act moves toward reauthorization. We’d do well not to believe it.

Neal McCluskey is an education policy analyst at the Cato Institute.