Why Higher Education Matters

Photo: Toni Bird

American colleges and universities serve society and are reliable engines of personal and national prosperity. They include 43 of the top 100 worldwide. Yet public trust in the value of higher education has been shaken. Families are frustrated about the costs of college. Some express concern about growing endowments. Others perceive our institutions as elitist or ideologically one-sided. Now is the time to tackle these concerns.

The stakes are high. Recently passed federal tax-reform legislation may reduce charitable contributions and stress some state education budgets. A new excise tax on endowments affects about 35 colleges and universities, including ours. Moody’s revised the 2018 outlook for higher education from “stable” to “negative.” Standard & Poor’s called it “bleak.”

What can we do to strengthen our contribution and better convey our value to society? Let’s take stock of both our strengths and what needs improvement.

Our value to society lies first in our ability to educate the next generation of citizens, critical thinkers and innovators. Affordability and access are key. From 2006 to 2016, Stanford provided $1.5 billion in scholarships and grants to our undergraduates; federal and state governments provided them $111 million. Tuition is now free for most families earning less than $125,000; one in seven Stanford undergraduates is now a first-generation college student; and 82 percent of undergraduates leave with zero debt. Despite gains, we remain focused on improving access for students from low- and middle-income families.

Fostering curiosity and free expression is also key. To be prepared for life, our students must learn how to think independently and to engage productively with diverse points of view. To help with this, the provost and I recently supported leaders at the Hoover Institution and the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies to team with student leaders across the political spectrum in creating a new series of moderated discussions, Cardinal Conversations, that pairs major public intellectuals who have contrasting views. In January, Reid Hoffman, ’89, and Peter Thiel, ’89, JD ’92, discussed technology and politics. Other speaker pairs will tackle a range of timely issues. We will continue identifying ways to help our students engage with a broad range of perspectives both inside and outside the classroom.

As a research university, our value also lies in advancing knowledge and in applying it to solve major societal problems. From 2012 to 2015, U.S. academic institutions were featured in 40 percent of worldwide patent citations. Stanford innovations range from a search engine to medical cures to digital music; Stanford entrepreneurs have created more than 5 million jobs since the 1930s. But the application of knowledge is not always efficient. In biomedicine, the journey from laboratory discovery to successful therapy is called the Valley of Death. We need to create new infrastructure and systems to speed up application—not just in biomedicine, but also in other disciplines.

Finally, our financial aid and academic programs are made possible by our endowment. We must be financially sound in 50 years, 100 years and beyond. Fifty years ago, Stanford cardiologists performed the first adult heart transplant in U.S. history. Recently, Stanford biologists discovered why some babies are born with heart disease. Whose heart might need healing 50 years from now? The endowment ensures our long-term capacity to support high-risk research that leads to transformative breakthroughs.

Our Long-Range Planning process has given us fresh ideas for how to advance affordability, access, free expression, and the discovery and application of knowledge. While we continually strive to improve, we must also find common ground and spread the word about the value of Stanford and all research universities.

Marc Tessier-Lavigne is the president of Stanford University.