Press Release

American Academy of Arts and Sciences Report Recommends Strategies to Sustain and Strengthen Public Research Universities


CAMBRIDGE, MA | April 7, 2016 — Over the past decade, state funding of public research universities (PRUs) has declined an average of 34% nationwide, a more severe drop than in any other sector of higher education. On average, state appropriations now account for only 18% of the total educational revenue per full-time equivalent (FTE) student at PRUs—a dramatic decrease from 32% in 2000. In response, PRUs have cut spending and raised tuition in order to maintain their educational and research missions, but this trend is not sustainable.

To ensure a bright and stable financial future for these institutions, leaders in academia, state and federal governments, and the private sector must come together in support of public research universities, uniting in the spirit of a new compact for public higher education in the 21st century.

These are some of the key findings from Public Research Universities: Recommitting to Lincoln’s Vision—An Educational Compact for the 21st Century, released today from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences as the final report of The Lincoln Project: Excellence and Access in Public Higher Education. The Lincoln Project has studied the important role public research universities play in their communities and in the nation, and assessed the implications of rapidly declining state support for public higher education. Now, The Lincoln Project offers its recommendations, in support of the public research universities that serve 3.8 million students each year and perform much of the nation’s groundbreaking research.

An Educational Compact for the 21st Century argues that PRUs cannot continue to cut academic programs without a negative impact on educational quality, and they cannot further raise tuition without simultaneously increasing need-based financial aid. In this context, the report acknowledges that PRUs must pursue new revenue streams and cultivate partners from across the private and public sectors. Most importantly, the report formulates a new educational compact—a call for state and federal governments, universities, businesses, and philanthropic organizations to come together in support of America’s public research universities. Each sector has a role to play in preserving and strengthening these institutions, which are an essential component of the nation’s intellectual infrastructure and a key driver of American education, research, culture, and the national economy.

An Educational Compact for the 21st Century urges PRUs to lead the charge in forging this new compact. Toward this end, the report also offers specific recommendations that PRUs might consider, including:

  • Exploring and pursuing new revenue streams, consistent with the fundamental values of public research universities
  • Establishing annual cost and efficiency targets, and publishing progress reports for the university community and the broader public
  • Forming regional alliances with other colleges and universities to facilitate research partnerships, shared course offerings, collective purchasing contracts, common facility usage, and collaborations on innovative programs, and
  • Signaling to the business community that PRUs are willing partners by accelerating and simplifying the transfer of knowledge to the private sector.

Recommendations for state governments include:

  • Finding alternative strategies to balance the budget besides cutting university funding
  • Reversing cuts made over the last decade, restoring funding to pre-recession levels, incrementally if not all at once, and
  • Establishing long-term funding goals, including targets for the growth of state investment, to bring stability to higher education budgets and assist universities in planning.

Recommendations for the federal government include:

  • Recognizing that the intellectual infrastructure of the nation is as important to the future as the physical infrastructure
  • Encouraging partnerships among state governments, federal agencies, private philanthropists and public research universities through the use of challenge-grant programs, and
  • Reforming regulations that discourage students (especially low-income or first-generation college students) from applying for financial aid, including by simplifying the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).

Recommendations for the private sector include:

  • Acknowledging the importance of public research universities to the preparation of the American workforce by supporting public research university scholarships and internships
  • Engaging in public advocacy in each state on behalf of public research universities and in support of the nation’s intellectual infrastructure, and
  • Promoting research partnerships and simplified intellectual property agreements.

“Public research universities are an important part of the nation’s intellectual heritage,” said American Academy President Jonathan F. Fanton. “We hope that everyone who reads The Lincoln Project’s recommendations—students, parents, alumni, the general public, and leaders from the worlds of business, government, and philanthropy— will be inspired to support these universities, which are significant to the intellectual, cultural, and economic health of their states, regions, and the country.”

“Our public research universities must secure a stable financial future. They can do so by pursuing new partners and new models, but the states must also reinvest,” said Lincoln Project co-chair Robert Birgeneau, Chancellor Emeritus, University of California, Berkeley. “The entire community — the federal government, state governments, students, businesses big and small, foundations, private philanthropists and the universities themselves — must come together and each do their part to guarantee the continuing pre-eminence of American public research universities. Each one has a significant stake in the quality of our public research universities and therefore each one has an obligation to participate.”

“If all fifty states resolved to increase their contributions to PRUs over the next decade, that commitment would be the most effective way to address the problem,” said Lincoln Project co-chair Mary Sue Coleman, President-Elect, Association of American Universities, and President Emerita, the University of Michigan. “For the future prosperity of the country, we all must recognize that our intellectual infrastructure is just as important, if not more important than any other state investment. Americans have real concerns about the economy and the growing income gap. We know that education is one effective way to reduce disparities and public research universities are an important part of that solution for the country.”

An Educational Compact for the 21st Century is the fifth and final publication from The Lincoln Project. The first, Public Research Universities: Why They Matter, demonstrated the vital public good that public research universities represent for the nation. Three subsequent publications examined state financing of higher education, the funding model of PRUs, and contributions that PRUs have made to American society. Funding for The Lincoln Project is provided by generous support from Robert and Colleen Haas, The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, The Spencer Foundation, Carnegie Corporation of New York, and the Thomas and Stacey Siebel Foundation.

Founded in 1780, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences is one of the country’s oldest learned societies and independent policy research centers, convening leaders from the academic, business, and government sectors to respond to the challenges facing the nation and the world. Current Academy research focuses on higher education, the humanities, and the arts; science and technology policy; global security and energy; and American institutions and the public good. The Academy’s work is advanced by its more elected members, who are leaders in the academic disciplines, the arts, business, and public affairs from around the country and the world.