Under Daniels, things have been generally cheery at Purdue. With return on investment increasingly important to students, given the price of attending and the corresponding debt, Purdue has something to sell: static costs and a good job if you graduate, especially in the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields. Since Daniels started in 2013, undergrad applications and enrollment have hit record levels, as have alumni donations, graduation rates, and the number of startups launched by researchers. Purdue has added 75 tenure-track positions in engineering and increased the number of students earning STEM degrees by 24 percent, with big gains among women (40 percent) and underrepresented minorities (65 percent). Daniels has rolled out initiatives that range from the audacious, such as interest-free financial aid in exchange for a percentage of future earnings, to the alcoholic: Boiler Gold, a craft beer that went on sale in West Lafayette this fall, is a collaboration among a local brewer, the university, and its food science department.
Daniels’s moves are driven by necessity. Founded in 1869, Purdue was part of a wave of public universities established after the Civil War that helped expand the middle class and propel the research advances that fueled the manufacturing boom in the 20th century. Today, tighter public spending means more schools are getting less state funding. Some, including the University of California at Berkeley, UCLA, Michigan, North Carolina, Texas, and Virginia, have replaced that loss with a combination of jacked-up tuition, even-more-jacked-up out-of-state tuition, successful sports programs, and donations from exuberant—and wealthy—alumni. Other large public universities, especially in the Midwest, have struggled to replace state funding cuts, making it tough to keep faculty from seeking higher salaries and bigger research budgets elsewhere. Professors at Midwestern public universities make about 30 percent less than their Northeastern counterparts.