Whatever Happened to Public Higher Education? (Part 4)

Solutions are easier to identify than they will be to implement

For the past three weeks, we have been considering one of the biggest problems facing the U.S. today: the astronomical increase in the price of public higher education that has seriously impacted access for an increasing number of students now in the K-12 pipeline, coupled with growing concerns by parents and prospective students that the quality of the undergraduate experience at these public institutions has fallen, despite the rise in price.

Now, in Part 4, we will consider some possible solutions – but a warning: these solutions are much easier to identify than they will be to implement. The question will be whether the public’s interest in a college education that is both affordable and high quality will prevail over a higher education establishment that wants the status quo (even as it continues to lobby for larger state appropriations).

It is by no means a given that the problems of public higher education will automatically diminish, once the national economy improves. The federal budget plan recently released by the House Budget Committee, under the leadership of its chairman, Rep. Paul Ryan, proposes cuts of $5 trillion over the next decade, including the likelihood of significant reductions in the size and number of Pell Grants (Inside Higher Ed, “Ryan Budget Calls for Cuts to Pell Grant, Elimination of NEH,” April 2, 2014). That budget is unlikely to be approved by the Senate this year, but the mid-term elections could give the Republicans a majority in the Senate, in which case we can expect significant changes in how the federal government supports higher education in 2015.

Some states have already begun a reconsideration of the mission of public universities. Consider the University of Texas at Austin, the leading flagship campus in the state (Associated Press, “Elite State Universities Come Under Fire,” February 2014.) As a consequence of state budget cuts and soaring tuition, members of the Board of Regents, along with the Center for Higher Education at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, began asking why the state of Texas needs a “Cadillac,” when a “Chevrolet Bel Air” will do. (Ironically, the Bel Air model was discontinued in 1975.) The Director of the Center for Higher Education said, “We’ve gone too far in the direction of research at the expense of our students,” and cited a study that claims most of the faculty were not doing top-quality research.

The faculty, administration, and alumni of the University of Texas fought back, arguing that the state needed a “university of the first class,” and not a trade school. The chair of the alumni association said, “I just don’t understand why they want to dumb down a public institution of this magnitude.”

But opponents questioned the need for seven museums at the University, spending millions acquiring literary collections such as Jack Kerouac’s notebooks, or public memorabilia such as the dresses worn by Vivian Leigh in “Gone with the Wind.” The chair of the Board of Regents, himself a UT alumnus, said, “We are a public university that [is] paid for by the citizens of the state of Texas…[Texas has] a lot of students who cannot afford an institution that is a very high priced, Ivy League-type institution.”

Similar questions are being raised in other states, leaving a very uncertain future for public higher education in this country. Is it possible to have an outcome that doesn’t place the academics and the politicians in a fight to the death?

I am not under the illusion that there is a magic potion that can cure all of public higher education’s ills. On the one hand, there is no question in my mind that our country needs the states to recommit to the virtues of public higher education – and be willing to pay for it. A better-educated workforce will be better compensated, resulting in growing tax revenues for the state. More highly educated people are healthier, and less likely to require any form of public assistance, or to be incarcerated. There are highly pragmatic reasons why the states should reinvest in their public colleges and universities.

At the same time, the state colleges and universities need to reaffirm their commitment to provide what the public wants and needs – a highly affordable, quality undergraduate education for their children – rather than focusing on moving up a notch or two on the lists developed by the college ranking services. This will mean paying more attention to teaching, and, to the extent that they still wish to have a research agenda, finding ways to involve their undergraduate students in that work, something that we have done very successfully at Roger Williams University.

The state colleges were once the doorways through which first-generation college students achieved social mobility. If students and parents were given the option of paying lower tuition that supported quality undergraduate education only, versus the option of a higher tuition that was used in significant measure to support graduate education and research, does anyone really doubt which option most parents and students would choose? When will a state college take the step to give them that choice?

The public flagships face a different problem, because they are tasked with the inherently conflicting missions of undergraduate education, graduate education and research. In that world, tenure and promotion decisions are heavily influenced by the quality of faculty research; teaching is of secondary importance.

The answer to the conflict between a focus on undergraduate education on the one hand, and graduate education and research on the other, may be for the public universities to rely on research professors, supported by grants, to be the primary researchers and graduate student advisors, and to have the faculty who are on the state payroll to be far more focused on providing an excellent educational experience for the undergraduates.

However, as long as public universities give greater weight to faculty research than to high-quality teaching, we can anticipate that the public will continue to withhold their support for increasing the level of state funding for public higher education.

Finally, all of the public colleges and universities must become far more creative in developing alternative revenue streams that reduce their historic reliance on the state for the bulk of their funding. What alternatives might the public colleges and universities consider? Here’s a list of possibilities. To be sure, not each suggestion will necessarily work for every campus:

  • Expand philanthropic efforts, with a commitment to use a growing endowment to increase affordability, not to build more campus monuments.
  • Create dual admission programs with community colleges, to guarantee placement of community college students who earn an associate’s degree – and commit to accept all of the students’ credits when they transfer.
  • Expand adult learning programs, offered online or blended with face-to-face instruction, at sites that are convenient for the prospective students.
  • Expand the use of the campus in summer, either through a larger summer school or through more extensive use of the campus for camps and conferences – or move to a trimester or quarter system, and away from the semester system that underutilizes the campus over the course of a year.
  • Create public-private partnerships for everything from dormitories to joint programs with social service agencies and nonprofit organizations.
  • Develop more joint programs with other four-year institutions for low-enrolled courses and programs.
  • Utilize more instructors (educated at the masters level) for introductory courses in writing and mathematics, on term contracts, and lessen the use of doctorally educated faculty for introductory courses (and lessen the use of underpaid adjuncts with no benefits as well).
  • Develop a portion of the campus for commercial purposes, or lease a portion of the campus for a purpose compatible with the educational mission.

Some public universities have already shown admirable entrepreneurship in diversifying their revenue streams, but there are still many that expect to be rescued by the state. The states can, and should, do more, but the glory days of the 1960s and ’70s, where the state carried most of the load, are gone forever. Yet the public institutions can do far more to increase affordability, if they have the will to do so.

Our continued economic success as a nation depends on first creating, and then implementing, a shared vision on the part of the states and their public universities that will lead to affordable access to a high quality university education for a significant fraction of the students now moving through the K-12 pipeline. Getting there will not be easy – but we have no other choice.