News Release 16-053

Higher education is more than a private good


New National Science Board report emphasizes higher education sector's essential contributions to the nation

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NSB produces the Science and Engineering Indicators report.
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May 2, 2016

The National Science Board (NSB, Board) today released a new policy brief on the public and private benefits of the nation's higher education institutions. The brief comes at a time when the private costs and private returns associated with higher education are a topic of frequent policy discussions.

The NSB brief joins other recent reports, including the American Academy of Arts & Sciences' Lincoln Project, in highlighting the broad public value of our higher education system to the nation and emphasizing the need for public investment in its research and educational missions. An accompanying "sense of the Board" statement underscores higher education's value in fostering a civically engaged society.

"Gainful employment and better lifelong earnings are extraordinarily important and getting a college degree is a key way of doing that," said Kelvin Droegemeier, NSB Vice Chair and Vice President for Research at the University of Oklahoma. "But that's only one part of what our higher education system does. By educating individuals, it helps prepare the workforce the United States needs today and in the future. By conducting the bulk of the fundamental research in this country, our colleges and universities play a foundational role in the innovation ecosystem by producing research that fuels new industries and our economy. Our colleges and universities do so much more than offer credentials to people."

The brief draws on data from several chapters of Science and Engineering Indicators 2016 to highlight the higher education sector's importance as a catalyst for the nation's research enterprise and for the development of a workforce that makes the U.S. globally competitive. It makes the case that it is in the interest of all Americans -- regardless of their personal educational aspirations -- to ensure that these institutions thrive.

"Across this country, university campuses bring value locally, regionally and nationally, providing enrichment to the community, training to individuals, and economic growth in the form of jobs, start-ups, patents and other technology transfer activities," said Dan Arvizu, NSB Chair and PreCourt Energy Scholar at Stanford University.

In its accompanying statement, the Board characterizes U.S. colleges and universities as "more important than ever to the future health, safety, security and economic competitiveness of our nation." Looking beyond the economic impacts, the Board also stresses some of the less quantifiable benefits noting that "higher education plays a broader, intangible and crucial role in supporting the past, current and future success of our democratic society."

The Board's policy brief makes the case for prioritizing public support for the nation's institutions of higher education at a time when there are many worthy investments of limited public funds at the federal and state levels. In addition to highlighting some lesser-known contributions of U.S. colleges and universities, the brief draws attention to several threats facing this vital national resource. These include declining federal investments in academic research.

Federal funding of research and development at institutions of higher education has declined by 11 percent since 2011, the longest multiyear decline in federal funding in this data series that goes back to 1972. The report also documents recent declines in state funding for public colleges and universities and the concomitant rapid growth in net tuition, developments that the Board called attention to in its 2012 report, Diminishing Funding and Rising Expectations: Trends and Challenges for Public Research Universities. The latter has made public colleges and universities -- the most accessible institutions in U.S. higher education system -- costlier for students to attend.

"The Board is concerned that current emphasis on near-term, individual benefits of higher education could undermine what has long made the U.S. higher education system a model for the world and an engine of our national prosperity," Arvizu said. "In the past century and a half, the U.S. built a world-leading research enterprise -- much of which starts with basic research conducted at our colleges and universities -- and developed an educated workforce, in no small measure due to public institutions that made higher education accessible and affordable. As policymakers identify ways to address challenges facing higher education, we hope that they will not lose sight of the enormous public benefits that come from public investments in research and education."

About Policy Companion Briefs

NSB's Policy Companion Briefs highlight themes from Science and Engineering Indicators that the Board believes signal challenges or opportunities for the nation's science and engineering enterprise.

About Indicators

Science and Engineering Indicators is the most comprehensive source of high quality federal data on a wide range of topics that include trends in global R&D investments and knowledge-intensive production, K-12 and postsecondary STEM education, workforce trends and composition, state level comparisons, and public attitudes and understanding of science and related issues. Other, related resources include an interactive Infographic showing international comparisons, the Indicators Digest, a STEM education resource and NSB's 2015 report, Revisiting the STEM Workforce.

About NSB

The NSB is the policymaking body for the National Science Foundation. NSB also advises the President and Congress on science and engineering policy issues. The Board's 24 members are drawn primarily from universities and industry and represent a variety of science and engineering disciplines. Selected for their eminence in research, education, or public service and records of distinguished service, Board members serve six-year terms. NSF's Director is an ex-officio 25th member of the Board.

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Nadine Lymn, NSB, (703) 292-2490, nlymn@nsf.gov

The National Science Foundation (NSF) is an independent federal agency that supports fundamental research and education across all fields of science and engineering. In fiscal year (FY) 2017, its budget is $7.5 billion. NSF funds reach all 50 states through grants to nearly 2,000 colleges, universities and other institutions. Each year, NSF receives more than 48,000 competitive proposals for funding and makes about 12,000 new funding awards.

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