America’s great public research universities, which produce path-breaking discoveries and train some of the country’s most talented young students, are under siege. The result may be a significant weakening of the nation’s preeminence in higher education. Dramatic cuts in public spending for state flagship universities seem to be at odds with widespread public sentiment. Americans say they strongly believe in exceptional educational systems; they want their kids to attend excellent and selective colleges and to get good, well-paying, prestigious jobs. They also support university research. After 15 years of surveys, Research! America found in 2015 that 70 percent of American adults supported government-sponsored basic scientific research like that produced by public universities, while a significant plurality (44 percent) supported paying higher taxes for medical research designed to cure diseases like cancer or Alzheimer’s. Nonetheless, many state legislators seem to be ignoring public opinion as they essentially starve some of the best universities—those that educate about two-thirds of American college students.
According to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences’ recently completed Lincoln Project report, between 2008 and 2013 states reduced financial support to top public research universities by close to 30 percent. At the same time, these states increased support of prisons by more than 130 percent. New York City’s budget office reported in 2013 that incarcerating a person in a state prison cost the city roughly $168,000 a year. California apparently does it on the cheap: It costs roughly $64,000 annually for each prisoner—a bit more than the cost of a year at an Ivy League university (average tuition is $50,000) and far more than at the University of California, Berkeley, ($13,000) or at CUNY ($8,000).