Research universities stand as the foremost social enterprises for securing, protecting and promoting cultural and economic vitality. But often the most important potential beneficiaries of research universities — undergraduate students and prospective undergraduate students — misunderstand or under-appreciate the opportunities they offer. This is a problem for the generations of young people who constitute the lifeblood of the American research university and will soon lead our growing knowledge based economy.
It seems increasingly the case that young people with career ambitions that require perpetual learning struggle to match themselves with universities that offer the best prospects for achieving these ambitions. Just as unfortunate, many undergraduate students who make their way to research universities fail to take advantage of the unique platforms for discovery and inquiry to be found there.
A recent Forbes magazine study found that the top 10 most innovative American cities surround at least one university with what the Carnegie Institution terms “high” or “very high” levels of research activity. In response, Al Lee, director of quantitative analysis at Payscale.com, observed that “the lesson seems to be, if you don’t have a strong university nearby, you can’t be an innovative city.”
Welcome as this observation may be, it underscores the fact that we typically think of market or regional level benefits of university research rather than individual level benefits of university research experiences. We need to think of both. And we need to maximize the value of both.
Why are undergraduate research experiences important? While they entail different methods and approaches in different fields, all undergraduate research experiences are unified by a central focus on two important processes: creating new knowledge and communicating the value and meaning of this new knowledge. These experiences can be the ultimate space for high reward entrepreneurship and meaningful creativity.
The benefits of knowledge creation and communication are appreciated by labor markets. In one study, 93 percent of employers reported that a candidate’s undergraduate major was less significant than their ability to communicate effectively and apply knowledge to solving real-world problems. Another, more recent report, shows that students’ perceptions of their own job preparedness fall far below the perceptions of employers, especially as it pertains to locating, organizing and evaluating information; oral and written communication; analytical thinking, analyzing and solving complex problems, and applying knowledge.
Industry and government understand the importance of engaging young people in research and commit substantial resources to this end. For example, the Google Science Fair, an online science and technology competition for 13-18-year-olds, provides an opportunity for thousands of students from more than 90 countries to develop and submit original research projects. Similarly, the National Science Foundation invested more than $68 million in 2013 in its Research Experiences for Undergraduates programs.
At Arizona State University, we enhance the models offered by government and industry by offering a wide variety of research opportunities for undergraduates. From the Fulton Undergraduate Research Initiative, designed to provide engineering students with an independent, hands-on lab experience, to the School of Life Sciences Undergraduate Research program, to Spark Open Research LLC, an ASU spinoff company dedicated to creating cutting edge research opportunities in a variety of STEM fields, we view providing relevant research experience to undergraduates as a central part of our mission.
The long-term benefits of this approach are inestimable. Consider that Pew Research approximates that more than 10,000 Americans will reach retirement age each day for the next 15 years. The prospect of losing 3.65 million of our economy’s most skilled and experienced laborers per year is easier to face when we have confidence that the labor force is being replenished by minds with the capacity for lifelong adaptive learning.
The challenge for the future is ensuring that our higher education system is up for the task. While there are more than 7,500 colleges and universities in the country, not all are equally positioned to facilitate discovery opportunities for young people. The 200 or so research universities account for only 3 million of the estimated 18 million American college students. And only a fraction of these are entering the labor market each year, leaving us with a shortage of capable lifelong master learners. In pressing forward we need to think critically about the attributes of colleges and universities best suited for scaling up.
At ASU we’ve proven through design of strategies and partnerships the research university can be beneficial for students and society while operating at a large scale. This is an important consideration for a future where career readiness is determined not just by whether one goes to college but also how one goes to college.
Michael M. Crow is the president of Arizona State University and former executive vice provost of Columbia University. He is the author, with Wiliam Dabars, of "Designing the New American University," available from the Johns Hopkins University Press. Derrick M. Anderson is the adviser to the president for innovation at Arizona State University, where he is also a professor in the School of Public Affairs.