In higher education, the positives outweigh the negatives

A UC Riverside sociologist’s 35-year survey of American universities offers evidence of surprises and successes

By Tess Eyrich

RIVERSIDE, Calif. — Would there ever have been a Google if Larry Page and Sergey Brin hadn’t met as graduate students at Stanford University? It’s impossible to know for sure, but the relationship the two co-founders forged at Stanford undoubtedly preceded monumental advances in search engine development.

What came out of the pair’s time at Stanford is just one example of the role of higher education in technological innovation. Yet according to Steven Brint of the University of California, Riverside, the frequency of such contributions to the American economy often goes underestimated.

Brint, a distinguished professor of sociology and public policy, has studied higher education in the U.S for more than four decades. In his view, many popular criticisms of the higher education system — about rising tuition costs, student loan debt, and the expansion of the ranks of adjunct faculty, to name a few — overshadow its successes as a mechanism of knowledge growth, innovation, and inclusion.

Released in early January, Brint’s new book, “Two Cheers for Higher Education: Why American Universities Are Stronger Than Ever — And How to Meet the Challenges They Face” (Princeton University Press), tracks the evolution of higher education in the U.S. between 1980 and 2015, a period of tremendous advancement for the system.

Teaching and research output remained at the core of universities’ mission, according to Brint, and were necessary for universities’ autonomy. But during the same period, technological innovation and social inclusion were added to the mix. These two newer emphases sometimes collided with the traditional aims of higher education, but the larger story, according to Brint, is that the three logics of development created a new dynamism.

“Around the mid- to late 1970s, Americans began to recognize that many of the industries that had been considered really strong in the United States — steel and automobile manufacturing, for example — were growing weaker,” Brint said. “As a result, people began to think a lot more about what universities could do to help the U.S. remain economically competitive through innovation.”

Also during the same period, widespread disinvestment of states from public university systems led to increased fees for students — but the costs didn’t stop those students from pouring onto campuses. Postsecondary enrollments increased from 15.3 million in 2000 to 20 million in 2010, Brint noted, “accelerating through a time when tuitions continued their steady climb upward.”

Likewise, research expenditures accelerated as universities began to look to external sources for funding. All told, expenditures at a sampling of 188 top research universities grew tenfold between 1979 and 2010 — from $4.4 billion to $46.8 billion in inflation-adjusted dollars — resulting in a research boom with long-lasting impacts.

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