Both US presidential candidates will tell universities exactly what they want to hear, warns Robert Hauptman.
Higher education in the US is in flux. More than 15 million Americans attend 4,168 colleges and universities, and some 500,000 foreign students from countless countries choose US institutions for their education. But things are different now compared with even 20 or 30 years ago. Technology controls our destinies. Political correctness and ideological divisiveness stir up campuses and conservative professors claim that most of their liberal colleagues make their lives intolerable. During the 1990s, the University of Minnesota's Twin-Cities campus enrolled more than 60,000 students; by 2001, the number was down to fewer than 47,000.
Tuition fees continue to rise and higher education is much less affordable. In the 1960s, it was possible to earn graduate degrees at the Government's expense: National Defense Education Act fellowships offered generous stipends, tuition remission and no required duties.
In the past, students went to college to learn, to build character and to expand their horizons. They also needed jobs when they graduated, but that goal was sometimes a secondary concern. Today, we gear our programmes towards vocational necessities. Students choose practical areas such as computer science or nursing. Our highly desirable liberal arts education has evolved into little more than vocational training programmes.
The prevailing economic atmosphere is not likely to change under a new administration. Both the Democrats and the Republicans care about education. Indeed, sometimes legislators care too much and meddle in our affairs - forcing libraries to filter the internet or lose funding, or passing legislation that mandates social amelioration that may be positive in theory but causes harm in reality.
And candidates, naturally, promise what their hundreds of individual constituencies want to hear. When President George W. Bush and Senator John Kerry address the National Rifle Association, Veterans of Foreign Wars, the American Medical Association or the education lobby, they gear their remarks to the needs of these people. What they say always has a positive slant. No sane candidate would promise, on election, to eliminate federal support for academic research, even though, astonishingly, such a statement would probably have little effect on the final outcome. One need only recall that just half of all eligible voters cast ballots.
Public and private institutions with enormous endowments - Harvard University's is some $22.6 billion (£11 billion) a year - do not need government support, although they are happy to avail themselves of scholarship enhancement and research grants. The less well-endowed depend on government largesse. Public institutions are funded in great measure by the state in which they are located, but the states derive some funds from federal sources.
The politically minded citizen may feel that since Republicans tend to be more fiscally restrained, a Democratic administration under Mr Kerry would lend more support to the academic community. And perhaps this is true. Mr Bush favours primary and secondary-school benefits so that higher education may be shortchanged. He also demands proscriptions against types of research, including work on stem cells. Most telling is the fact that education officials are not happy with Mr Bush's achievements or proposals.
Within the academic community, specific ideological or disciplinary groups may align themselves with one party or candidate.
Scientists are said to favour Mr Kerry. This is understandable because during the past few years, the Bush Administration has been accused of politicising science by applying data in unacceptable or distorted ways to convince the public that a specific position, for example, on the environment, is valid. In addition, the academic scientific community has the most to lose under a fiscally conservative administration, since much of its often expensive laboratory research is supported by federal grants from agencies such as the National Institutes of Health. And a new law might redirect funds from non-specific biomedical research to the more specialised biodefence laboratories. Thus, if scientists believe Mr Kerry would be more generous, they would, naturally, support him.
Both Mr Bush and Mr Kerry will attempt to sway people involved in higher education by promising the things that they favour. But since budgets are limited, when the time comes to fulfil promises, either might be forced to hedge.
Robert Hauptman is a professor of information media at St Cloud State University in Minnesota and editor of the Journal of Information Ethics .