Note: The following op-ed appeared in the Huffington Post on April 9, 2012.
For two centuries, public research universities such as Indiana University have helped shape the fortunes of the United States. They are economic and intellectual growth engines that give back far beyond what they receive in taxpayer support and knit together the residents of a state in a way that is uniquely American.
In fact, America’s economic dominance has been driven in large part by the countless scientific and commercial breakthroughs that have sprung from our research universities. The extraordinary return on investment provided by our public universities is one of the reasons that U.S. higher education is widely considered to be the best in the world and why other countries are aggressively seeking to replicate the American research university model.
Yet in these difficult economic times, when hard choices must be made by governments and individuals alike, it is undeniably fair for policymakers and concerned citizens to question whether that impact is worth the level of taxpayer support public universities receive and the growing fees they must charge students. At the same time, the headlines and sound bites that dominate the discussion lack balance.
Here in Indiana, the latest proof of the value of public universities was offered late last month when IU and Indiana University Health, shared the strikingly positive results of a just-completed independent economic impact study.
The study, conducted by Tripp Umbach a leader in economic research for higher education and health care systems, calculated the combined economic impact of the university and its partner health system at $11.5 billion a year, compared to a state investment in the university of about $460 million. Together, both institutions are the largest employer in Indiana and account for 100,000 direct and indirect jobs.
Beyond the annual economic impact, IU’s quarter of a million alumni in Indiana make a difference in every corner of the state every day. For example, 90 percent of the state’s dentists, nearly three-quarters of its lawyers and one-third of its secondary teachers are IU graduates. Indeed, Tripp Umbach calculated that each graduating class of IU will earn $17 billion more over a 40-year working career than had its members not gone to college.
The bigger picture is even more powerful: The type of dramatic enduring economic impact generated by IU and IU Health is not unique.
A comparison of peer institutions compiled by Tripp Umbach as part of the IU report reveals that the University of Washington, University of Texas at Austin, University of Wisconsin-Madison and the Penn State University system, among many others, all produce annual economic returns in the billions of dollars a year for their home states.
Indeed, public universities across the nation produce the vast majority of four-year college graduates each year, providing the educational foundations for many of tomorrow’s business executives, teachers, scholars, scientists, lawyers and doctors.
Unfortunately, this is a story that is not being heard much these days. Instead, the talk from state and federal legislators, and even the White House, has centered on rising tuition, which is said to be pricing many out of a four-year college degree; mounting student debt, which now exceeds $1 trillion nationally by some estimates and has become a crushing burden for many students and their families; and the issue of too many students not graduating on time or failing to complete their degrees.
The fact is the majority of in-state students at IU don’t pay the full “sticker price” of tuition and the average net cost per student at our largest campus in Bloomington this year is about the same as it was nine years ago.
More than half of the undergraduates from IU-Bloomington leave with no debt. Additionally, the average student debt per degree earned at IU and other public four-year universities is much less than at for-profit institutions, which have much lower graduation rates.
Still, these are the issues that keep me and other advocates for public higher education awake at night. We are acutely aware that rising costs and student debt threaten the foundation of public universities.
In difficult economic times students and policymakers tend to view education from a more narrow financial perspective, one that commoditizes all types of college degrees. Our challenge, then, is to convince an increasingly skeptical public that what we have to offer is worth their investment. We must start by shining the light like never before on everything we do with an eye toward finding greater efficiency across our operations, while remaining true to our core academic mission.
We need to build on recent efforts to offer meaningful reductions in the cost of attaining a degree, such as IU’s decision last fall to lower summer school tuition by 25 percent for in-state students starting this year, and move toward a more robust year-round academic calendar that makes it easier for students to graduate in four years or even less.
That said, the data from the economic impact study commissioned by IU provide just the latest confirmation that public universities continue to be enormous economic drivers for their home states in terms of the taxes paid, and goods and services purchased by universities and those with which they do business.
That value should not be forgotten or minimized as we all—educators, policymakers and citizens alike—work together to ensure that a four-year college degree remains within the grasp of all qualified students.