The Return of Earmarks Promises Billions for Higher Education

For better or worse, the controversial practice is back following a decade-long hiatus.
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  • Congressionally directed spending has returned following a decade-long absence.
  • These "earmarks" can provide billions of dollars for colleges and universities.
  • Critics say earmarks weaken scientific research bypassingting the peer review process.

After a decade-long moratorium, earmarks are back.

Commonly known as appropriations or "pork" money, earmarks have a long and controversial history in the U.S. Now that they've returned, higher education stands to gain billions of dollars — for better or worse, depending on whom you ask.

What Are Congressional Earmarks?

Each year, the president submits an annual budget to Congress for review. This document, which can be thousands of pages long, includes funding needs for various federal agencies.

During their review, members of Congress can add items to be funded by these agencies — normally projects or initiatives specific to each member's district. Funding is thus "earmarked" for these particular requests.

Another term for this practice is "pork barrel" spending, a form of patronage between politicians and their constituencies.

Critics of the practice claim it encourages corruption, favors special-interest groups, and wastes taxpayer money, among other concerns. Notable examples of waste include: $144,000 to determine the effects of cocaine on monkeys, half a million dollars to put shrimp on a treadmill, and the infamous "Bridge to Nowhere," a $320 million boondoggle connecting the Alaskan town of Ketchikan (population 8,900) with an airport on Gravina Island.

Since the earliest days of the Republic, skeptics have kept a watchful eye on the various forms of earmark spending. In a 1796 letter to James Madison, Thomas Jefferson called the practice a "source of boundless patronage to the executive" and a "bottomless abyss of public money."

Things came to a head in 2011. The Republican-controlled Congress, citing the mushrooming federal deficit and increases in wasteful spending, banned earmarks.

In truth, the ban had support from both parties. In his State of the Union address earlier that year, President Barack Obama said, "If a bill comes to my desk with earmarks inside, I will veto it."

What the Return of Earmarks Means for Higher Education

But now they're back, thanks to Democrats seeking to unite the party and help vulnerable members get reelected. The House Committee on Appropriations resurrected the practice in February, followed by Senate approval in April.

In the House, earmarks will be called "community project funding," while the Senate is using the term "congressionally directed spending."

Some new provisions come with the reinstatement. Requests from both House members and senators must be online and open to the public. House members are limited to 10 requests, while senators have no cap. Total funding cannot exceed 1% of discretionary spending. Funds cannot support for-profit entities.

This last stipulation may have significant implications for colleges and universities.

"The new system that restricts the congressionally directed funding to nonprofit organizations sets institutions up pretty strongly in terms of being competitive as recipients of those grants," said Jonathan Fansmith, director of government relations at the American Council on Education. "You certainly have the possibility for a lot of support coming back to higher education through this process."

Colleges historically have had their share of earmarks. A 2010 Inside Higher Ed study revealed that 875 colleges and other academic organizations received just under $2 billion that year, with about $80 million going to community colleges.

Michael Nietzel, president emeritus at Missouri State University, speculates that the return of earmarks once again could mean billions of dollars for higher education. In addition to traditional support for research and facilities, he suggests funding might help create new academic programs and enhance technology and distance-learning efforts.

A 2010 Inside Higher Ed study revealed that 875 colleges and other academic organizations received just under $2 billion that year, with about $80 million going to community colleges.

Quotation mark

The current slate of requests does, in fact, feature a host of higher education projects. Those on the House list, which totals $5.9 billion, include: $1.3 million for the University of Massachusetts Boston for a new nursing and health sciences building, $1.2 million for California State University, Fullerton, to build a pedestrian bridge, and $437,000 for Eastern Kentucky University to fund a STEM center.

The Senate's requests, totaling $26.8 billion, include $122 million to the University of Missouri for a new health institute, $100 million to the University of Alabama for an endowment to recruit STEM faculty, $23.9 million to the University of Wisconsin for germplasm research, $20 million to Mississippi State University for its Ulysses S. Grant Presidential Library, and $13.7 million to the University of Colorado for its astrophysics lab.

Community colleges hope to pick up where they left off a decade ago with an increasing share of earmark funding. Among the House requests are several grants slated for community colleges to support academic programs, labs and research facilities, and distance-learning technology.

"We were encouraged by the trend of greater community college funding through this route," said David Baime, senior vice president for government relations and policy analysis at the American Association of Community Colleges. "And we're expecting that our colleges will continue to exercise that opportunity."

Earmarks Bypass Peer Review, and Some Say That Threatens Scientific Integrity

Not everyone believes the return of earmarks is good news for higher education. Many in the science community decry earmarks designated for research because they bypass peer review.

The usual process of applying for federal grants from agencies such as the National Science Foundation includes extensive peer review, where experts vet proposals and help determine which projects get funded. A congressionally directed earmark is not subject to peer review. As a result, the pursuit of scientific knowledge could suffer, and more promising projects might go unfunded, critics say.

For this reason, the Association of American Universities has frequently denounced the use of earmarks to support academic research.

"AAU has historically maintained that earmarking of federal research funds reduced the capacity of federal agencies to support the most promising research and thereby impaired the quality of their research programs," it claimed in 2018. "We maintain that specific research grants and awards are best determined by experts based upon merit."

The Association of American Universities has frequently denounced the use of earmarks to support academic research.

Quotation mark

Professor Brian Silverman, author of the study "Academic Earmarks and the Returns to Lobbying," notes that universities often employ lobbyists who help them pursue earmarks and avoid the peer review process altogether.

"If you're going to earmark money for something, I guess, then earmarking it for universities rather than bridges to nowhere is probably a good thing," Silverman said. "But all else equal, I think fewer earmarks are better."

Still, a counterargument suggests earmarks level the playing field by allocating research funds to institutions typically left out of highly competitive grant programs, which tend to favor elite research universities.

Whether or not research-rich universities continue to get richer now that pork is once again on the higher education menu remains to be seen. But whatever the outcomes, there likely won't be a shortage of colleges bellying up to the trough.

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