The cost of sending a young adult to college continues to escalate, even as private and public scholarship funds dwindle. In these difficult economic times, families have to make hard decisions about whether or not it is worth nearly $200,000 for an out-of-state student to attend the University for four years versus saving over $100,000 (using estimates from the University’s Office of Financial Aid) by attending an in-state public college.

But families should not be alone in questioning affordability. The University administration should ask the same. Just as families are examining their budgets for costs to cut, the University has a special obligation as a public institution to use its dollars wisely to make a strong education accessible to qualifying students. Although the University reaps the benefits of a stellar reputation as one of the nation’s premier research institutions, it’s time to take a hard look at how those research dollars are allocated.

Having just completed my freshman year in a residential research program — the Michigan Research Community — I can attest to the “Michigan Difference” in research. I had a phenomenal experience assisting on valuable political research, and I learned about the remarkable variety of research going on throughout the University. One of my peers in the MRC assisted in studying the cellular source of brain cancer. Another assessed the causes of election-based violence in third world countries. And yet another investigated ways to improve palliative care for children, right here at University Hospital. We are fortunate that the University affords undergraduate students — including freshmen and sophomores — unique opportunities to contribute meaningfully to society through groundbreaking research.

But I have also seen how liberally the term “research” has been used. One project asked students around campus this hypothetical question: “If you had millions of dollars, would you give more money to a political candidate you support?” This research is flawed and, in many ways, wasteful. First, it is based on hypothetical responses — not real life — so its findings have limited application. More importantly, the question isn’t investigating anything we don’t already know. A better question to propose to students would be this: If you were in charge of the University’s budget during this painful recession, would you continue to allocate funds to ask students whether or not they would donate money to a political candidate they prefer?

To better determine the need for its research projects, the University should first determine what a specific project adds to society. The aforementioned research project didn’t unveil any new knowledge or information, and it won’t have any economic or social benefits. But a study exploring what factors motivate students to vote, for example, would clearly yield both social and economic benefits. Such research could be used to maximize voter turnout and make our democracy more representative of its people. In a more localized manner, student groups could use the findings to develop vote-maximizing, cost-minimizing get-out-the-vote drives. The difference in “economic utility,” or value, of these two projects is enormous. One has practical, social and cost-saving benefits; the other doesn’t provide any new knowledge, let alone any gains for society — economic or otherwise.

In a time when students are forced to take out thousands of dollars of loans and work full time jobs to attend the University, this institution must hold research funding accountable to a higher standard of scrutiny. We simply don’t have the luxury of ignoring the opportunity costs of superfluous research. It is not worth denying a student financial aid in order to ask other students hypothetical questions that don’t provide any benefit to society.

There is no question that the University should continue to contribute to the international community with cutting-edge research. But it is equally necessary to evaluate its allocations and ensure that they are not being misdirected to wasteful research. Perhaps it’s time we do our research on research.

Eric Stulberg is an LSA sophomore.

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