Public Research Universities: Recommitting to Lincoln’s Vision—An Educational Compact for the 21st Century


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The Lincoln Project: Excellence and Access in Public Higher Education

What Public Research Universities and Their Partners Should Do

As the financial model of public research universities changes, driven primarily by diminishing contributions from the states, these institutions must find ways to respond to their pressing needs while also building for the future. The Lincoln Project has focused on the universities as the principal actors. They have the most at stake in addressing these challenges, and they have more options at their disposal, from cost-cutting to tuition increases to regional partnerships. But public research universities cannot solve their financial challenges without help. They need new partners, especially among those who benefit most directly from the services that the universities provide.

The suggestions offered by the Lincoln Project are largely designed to attract such partners. State and federal government, business, and the philanthropic community all have roles in forging the new compact needed to sustain and strengthen public research universities. We urge these partners to work together and to be bold in pursuing the ideas presented here. Most public research universities have already undertaken some of the initiatives we recommend, and each should expand its strategies to adopt those recommendations most applicable to its specific context. We are confident that these recommendations, implemented in combination, will help public research universities evolve to meet new challenges and societal demands in a sustainable long-term model, while continuing to pursue their collective mission of ensuring excellence and access in public higher education.

Recommendations for Public Research Universities

  • Establish annual cost and efficiency targets, and publish progress reports for the university community and the broader public.
  • Form alliances with other colleges and universities (public or private, state or regional) to facilitate research partnerships, shared course offerings, collective purchasing contracts, common facility usage, and collaborations on innovative programs.
  • Explore and pursue new revenue streams consistent with the fundamental values of public research universities.
  • Enhance advancement and development activities within the institution, emphasizing unrestricted giving in support of core educational goals.
  • Pursue multipartner capacity-building matching programs. For example, state and federal agencies working together with philanthropic partners could provide transformational support for university faculty.
  • Signal to the business community that universities are willing partners by accelerating and simplifying the transfer of knowledge to the private sector.
  • Encourage governing boards to pursue the expertise needed to adjust to new funding models.
  • Provide comprehensive financial aid to low-income in-state undergraduate students.
  • Track student performance in real time and intervene appropriately to improve student success.
  • Improve transfer pathways from community colleges and via online interactive gateway courses.

Recommendations for State Government

  • Find alternative strategies to balance the budget besides cutting university funding. Higher education cannot continue to be the “balance wheel” for state budgets without compromising either the public character of public research universities or their educational missions.
  • Reverse cuts made over the last decade, restoring funding to pre-recession levels, incrementally if not in their entirety at once.
  • Establish long-term funding goals, including targets for the growth of state investment, to stabilize support and assist universities in long-term planning.
  • Create state incentives for corporations to support scholarships at public research universities—either at individual institutions or at multiple institutions—since corporations draw heavily upon the talent pool and research generated by these institutions.
  • Provide comprehensive financial aid to low-income in-state undergraduate students.
  • Encourage improvements in transfer pathways from community colleges.
  • Reduce unfunded regulatory mandates.

Recommendations for the Federal Government

  • Recognize that the intellectual infrastructure of the nation is as impor­tant to the future as the physical infrastructure.
  • Incentivize corporate and philanthropic contributions to public higher education through matching programs and tax breaks.
  • Simplify the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).
  • Through challenge programs, encourage partnerships between state governments, federal agencies, private philanthropists, and public research universities (such as a three-way partnership to provide ten thousand endowed faculty chairs over ten years).
  • Review and reduce unfunded federal regulatory mandates.

Recommendations for the Private Sector

  • Acknowledge the importance of public research universities to the preparation of the American workforce by supporting public research university scholarships and internships.
  • Promote partnerships among private foundations, similar to the Science Philanthropy Alliance, to combine resources and support student access to public research universities.
  • Cooperate with universities to develop licensing policies that accelerate the transfer of knowledge and research from campuses to the public.
  • Engage in public advocacy (in each state) on behalf of public research universities and in support of the nation’s intellectual infrastructure.
  • Consider a new national endowment for public higher education, including public research universities.

The challenges to public research universities are clear. However, considering the importance of these institutions to students, local communities, and the nation, we must all assume responsibility for their future. Each of us—whether a student, parent, business owner, voter, or leader in the corporate, governmental, or philanthropic world—must become more assertive in our support of public research universities. These institutions are an essential feature of our intellectual heritage and have evolved over time to become critical drivers of our economic, political, and cultural lives. We cannot allow these essential institutions to erode. The burdens of stewardship fall upon us all.