From labs to lectures

CORRINE HARRIS | Evergreen columnist

The phenomenon of the overcrowded lecture hall and the outbreak of empty science labs may seem to have divergent causes, but the harsh reality is the two issues are fundamentally one and the same.

Recent declines in federal and private funding for research at public universities all over the United States has left universities with a fiscal gap that higher education has been filling with hikes in tuition and student acceptance.

Accepting record levels of students is all fun and games until some of these students can’t make the cut.

Funding for research is woefully hard to come by these days. The National Institute of Health (NIH) alone had to cut $1.7 billion from its budget in 2013, according to The Huffington Post.

Consequently, 700 fewer NIH competitive research grants were issued in fiscal year 2013, setting back the innovation and progress that science provides. When scientists have less money to work with, scientists either have to settle for subpar materials or reduce the scope of their work.

Scientists are already estimated to spend approximately 40 percent of their time financing their laboratories by applying to government agencies and private foundations for grants, according to Scientific American. The average scientist today has to submit at least 30 percent more proposals to garner the same funding when compared to scientists in 1997. 

Students can tell the grant writing process is in full gear when professors begin rivaling the 14-hour days that we spend on campus during midterms and finals week. More than one lecture during the spring semester has begun with a professor describing the bureaucratic wasteland of grant proposals.

Aside from creating a living nightmare for most professors, the grant proposal process in combination with less available funding is creating an environment in which less science actually gets accomplished.   

The landscape of issues requiring the attention of researchers is filled with an unparalleled urgency. Problems that are left unattended will have dismal implications for the world’s future. Rising trends in obesity, treatments for cancer, green energy, and climate change constitute only a small percentage of the issues that the scientific community is trying to deal with.

The compromise between the quantity and quality of research that needs to be done in the face of low funding is hardly helping improve the global outlook. Health and environmental problems are surfacing as a result of the world’s lifestyle, and throwing these topics under the bus during times of financial instability has implications that reach far beyond the scope of an underfunded research laboratory.

Research funding, along with money from athletics, accounts for a substantial amount of the money that comes into universities nowadays.

At the university level, researchers are feeling the burn, but students are reaping the consequences as well. The cuts in higher education have led to schools in Washington spending 37.5 percent less per student in fiscal year ‘08 to fiscal year ‘13, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. On average, Washington state universities spend $3,272 less per student.

These statistics only account for decreases in federal funding. Losses in private funding mean these numbers are actually much worse.

For most universities, decreasing funding translates into hiked tuition rates. However, for Washington State University accepting record levels of new students has avoided the steep tuition hikes that so many other universities around the country are experiencing.

Unfortunately, accepting record levels of new students is accompanied with the acceptance of students who are unable to meet the demands higher education presents, and they’re getting themselves into major debt along the way.

The tale of the student who drops out after two or three semesters, or the student who spends five to six years at the university teetering on the edge of academic failure, is more than an urban legend. It is a reality that many students face.

Not all students on academic probation get sent home. Many of them remain here as long as tuition gets paid. I have known multiple students who have been on academic probation for more than two semesters. Some of them graduated after spending five or six years paying tuition, and some of them dropped out after racking up debt that realistically they might spend their whole life paying off.

Overcrowded lecture halls may temporarily avoid tuition increases, but it places a fiscal burden on the backs of students who could benefit from additional education before attending a four-year university.  

The university has become part of an unsustainable cycle, and unless changes are made, the wheels of higher education will keep turning along this path, crushing students with every turn.

– Corrine Harris is a senior animal science major from Edmonds. She can be contacted at 335-2290 or by opinion@dailyevergreen.com. The opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of the staff of The Daily Evergreen or those of Student Publications.