Higher Education's New Challenges

Photo: Glenn Matsumura

Most Americans do not perceive the United States to be the scientific powerhouse it once was. In 1999, almost half of those polled rated scientific advances among the country's most important achievements; by last year, only 27 percent thought so, according to a Pew survey. This, despite the fact that science and technology—from the Internet to stem-cell research to understanding climate change—have tremendous effects on our lives.

In recent years, college tuition has risen faster than the Consumer Price Index, while increases in family income above inflation have stalled. Middle-income families are having a progressively more difficult time affording college, and students attending institutions without robust financial aid programs must decide if an undergraduate degree is worth significant debt.

Last year, in Saudi Arabia, the newly created King Abdullah University of Science and Technology opened with the second-largest endowment of any university in the world. Harvard's endowment, which ranks first, took 300 years to build. China, already the source of the largest number of international students in the United States, has declared its intention to see some of its universities ranked among the best in the world.

Consider these facts, and you can conclude that the challenges facing higher education in the United States and around the world are tremendous. How we address them will dramatically affect how the research university evolves in this century. In this and subsequent columns, I will explore the university's changing role: how our opportunities differ from those of the past, how we can best fulfill what society asks of us, and why the public should take notice.

The research university's mission is twofold: to educate while at the same time creating new knowledge. Addressing the complexity and scale of today's problems—climate change, emerging infectious diseases, international terrorism, among others—will require our best minds. Research universities can be the wellspring of innovation, facilitating economic growth through the discovery of new knowledge and technology. Certainly Stanford has played this role.

But to thrive and lead in this century, we must understand the factors shaping our world and respond by changing how we work. Today's economies are knowledge-based and global: the daily conduct of business spans time zones and cultures. A decade ago, a company would not open an international office until years after its founding. Today, startups assume a global reach almost from day one. Large-scale, multidisciplinary problems mean that innovations in science and technology occur in highly collaborative research communities, with geographic distribution in funding as well as among researchers. And given the rapid pace of change driven by technological advances, we can anticipate that today's students will shift careers—not just employers—during their lifetimes.

What are the implications if our citizenry cannot keep pace with scientific advances or does not have the foundation to compete in a global, knowledge-based marketplace? Can students continue to take on tens of thousands of dollars in debt for an undergraduate degree? In competition for the most brilliant minds, how successful will different universities and different countries be?

In the United States, the federal government has played a seminal role in the success of higher education: establishing the nation's land grant universities through the Morrill Act of 1862, increasing access through the G.I. Bill of 1946, and awarding merit-based research funding after World War II. Those investments have yielded tremendous returns. But in this era of constrained federal budgets, I fear there will be increasing pressure to reduce higher education funding, particularly in research, with severe ramifications to our ability to compete and innovate.

Other challenges include the need to rein in the cost of a college education, the quality issues in U.S. science and mathematics education, and the plight of public universities. These are issues that should concern us all, and I will address some of these topics in subsequent columns.

Thank you for your own ongoing interest and support of this research university. Many of you have shared your ideas on these subjects, and I appreciate the thoughtfulness of your comments. I know you understand and value the contributions that Stanford makes. Through the education of its students, and its innovations and discoveries, the University encourages the advancement of society and, as the Stanfords directed us to do, we "exercise an influence of behalf of humanity and civilization."