Three stories broke recently, each highlighting slightly different issues facing academia. One focuses on undergraduate students struggling to make financial ends meet. Another focuses on the increasingly difficult funding landscape that may imperil the careers of researchers. And the last looks at the growth, and disparity in growth, between large and small university and college endowments.
Students in Georgia are experiencing cuts to the HOPE Scholarship program. Many of them are signing up for food stamps in an effort to make ends meet. Both internal and external scholarships have seen large hits in recent years due to the economic downturn, and with increasing tuition, students are bearing a larger and larger economic burden.
An article in PLoS ONE reports that the age of first grant is increasing, according to the National Institutes of Health. This is troubling on two fronts: first, it’s harder for young researchers to get the funding necessary to get established, and two, in addition to limiting careers, it may also be limiting science output. How much of the increased age is due to the graduate degree taking longer, thus sending out older graduates and how much is due to limiting funding opportunities is unclear. However, the problem doesn’t lie entirely with NIH: the other funding organizations have been making changes to grant applications and deadlines in a way that makes things harder for young researchers to successfully apply for those grants, too. In the sciences, where careers are made and broken based on successful grant applications, these numbers are sort of terrifying and discouraging.
At the same time, college endowments saw, on average, a 19.2% return during 2011. This is a large return, much larger than in 2010, but universities are still not back to pre-economic-downturn endowment levels. It is great that the endowments are doing well because the more financial resources a college or university has, the better it can serve its students. However, there appears to be a little of a 99% thing going on with universities – schools with endowments in excess of $1 billion saw a 20.1% return, while schools with endowments less than $25 million saw only 17.6%. Only 73 universities have endowments larger than $1 billion. It is possible that we might see a widening gulf in quality of education if these financial disparities continue. Also, colleges and universities are reporting receiving less money in donations, which, given the economic climate and the levels of un- or underemployment in recent graduates, is not even remotely surprising.