petition, and a focus on research and advanced training. In the American ecosystem, by contrast, there is significant diversity among research universities in size, geography, and missions. The ecosystem is characterized by decentralization, pluralism (public and private institutions), diverse funding sources (endowment, federal, state, tuition), high levels of competition, and a hybrid model that includes undergraduate education, graduate study, and research “in the same place, done by the same people, frequently at the same time.”5 These distinctions have made our ecosystem extremely productive. Indeed, the success of the U.S. system has prompted others to move toward our system, for example, the ongoing debates about the higher education sector in the United Kingdom.

The U.S. ecosystem and its productivity, argues Jonathan Cole, is importantly defined by “unprecedented, vast” federal funding for science and technology research. Hugh Graham and Nancy Diamond note that higher education grew substantially in the post–World War II era because of growing economic prosperity, the baby boom, and revolution in federal science policy. The last of these more specifically drove the expansion of the nation’s research universities. And, as a consequence, “American universities, not widely respected in the international community of scholars and scientists prior to World War II, subsequently won preeminence among the world’s leading institutions.”6

The U.S. ecosystem and its productivity, argue Graham and Diamond, also are importantly defined by a large, competitive, national market for faculty in which state funding has also played a critical role. This market emerged among a small set of prominent institutions between 1900 and 1925. In this system, faculty careers were defined by upward mobility through lateral movement that made the curriculum vitae all important, a primary attachment to profession rather than institution, and research productivity. In this environment, public research universities could only provide salaries competitive with those of private research universities through economies of scale and state appropriations.7


Measuring the direct contribution of universities, through this federal-state-university partnership, on the economy and society is a complex task,8 yet a series of indicators reveal a pattern of quality and impact.


5 Graham and Diamond, Rise of American Research Universities, p. 1.

6 Cole, Great American University; Graham and Diamond, Rise of American Research Universities, pp. 1 and 11.

7 Graham and Diamond, Rise of American Research Universities, pp. 20-22.

8 National Research Council, Measuring the Impact of Federal Investments in Research: Summary of a Workshop. Washington, DC: National Academies Press, 2011.

The National Academies | 500 Fifth St. N.W. | Washington, D.C. 20001
Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.
Terms of Use and Privacy Statement