Whatever Happened to Public Higher Education? (Part 2)

Declining state subsidies? Mean-spiritedness? The reshaping of public universities is more complex than that.

Last week, I described in some detail how state support for public higher education first waxed, then waned, over the last 60 years. Much of the decline in state subsidies for the institutions’ operating costs stemmed from pressure on state budgets to meet the growing needs of other state-supported programs, and an inability (coupled, to be sure, with an unwillingness) to continue providing public institutions with the same percentage of the states’ overall budgets as seen previously.

However, it would be a mistake to conclude that all of the problems associated with public higher education derive from a decline in state financial support. It would also be a mistake to assume this decline is entirely the result of mean-spiritedness on the part of state legislatures and governors. Things are much more complicated than that, and in order to understand the situation today correctly, we must take a short trip back in time.

Public universities began in this country in 1790, with the creation of the Universities of North Carolina and Vermont, and most other states followed suit during the next hundred years. The Morrill Act of 1862 created the land-grant colleges and universities that were charged with teaching applied fields, such as agriculture and engineering. Some states, such as Missouri, folded this responsibility into the existing public state university, whereas other states, such as Iowa and Kansas, created a second state university, focused specifically on these applied fields.

After the founding of Johns Hopkins University, a private university, in 1876, the large state universities rapidly adopted the Hopkins model of focusing not just on teaching, but also on research. By the beginning of the 20th century, graduate education and research (albeit on a much smaller scale than what we see today) had effectively been made part of the mission of state universities across the nation.

Examples of a second type of public institution – the state teachers’ college, or normal school – were created in the decade before the Civil War by legislatures in several states (three such institutions were created in New Jersey in 1855 alone). With a growing demand for teachers, the states established many more normal schools during the latter half of the 19th century and the early part of the 20th century.

In the years immediately after WW-II, the states built many new state colleges, not just for educating teachers, but also for teaching the liberal arts and sciences in general. By the early 1970s, most of the original normal schools had expanded their mission to include liberal arts and science education as well.

The states began a third type of public institution early in the 20th century, and these institutions continue to be created to this day. Community colleges (originally called “junior colleges”) are focused on preparing students for careers in applied fields (the associate of science degree) or for transfer to a four-year university at the end of the sophomore year (the associate of arts degree), as well as on offering public-interest courses that bear no college credit.

During the 1960s, some states, in an effort to bring order to this proliferation of new public colleges and universities, established state systems of higher education. California formed separate systems for the community colleges, the state colleges and universities, and the branches of the University of California, whereas New York folded all three categories of institution into a single system. Other states followed one or the other model, or came up with their own model.

But the underlying point is that the states generally provided very explicit instructions regarding the mission of these institutions. For example, the University of California was charged with undergraduate education, graduate education and research. The California State University system was charged with undergraduate education (especially in teacher education and in the liberal arts and sciences), and the California community colleges were charged with lower-division (i.e., freshman and sophomore) instruction only.

Problems arose almost immediately. For instance, in California a number of the state colleges and universities had been in existence long before the state corralled them into a system in 1960. San Francisco State and San Diego State were founded in the 1890s, and San Jose State was founded in 1857. All three had enrollments of well over 10,000 students in 1960, and had already developed varying levels of graduate education. The two polytechnic institutions, at San Luis Obispo and Pomona, founded in 1901 and 1938, respectively, were already teaching professional programs such as engineering and architecture – programs that campuses created after 1960 were prohibited from offering.

Similar issues existed in the other states. Over time, irrespective of how emphatic the states were in prescribing the mission of the public universities, campus after campus, in state after state, endeavored to expand its mission – and the boundaries between the three tiers of public institutions began to blur.

Today, many former state colleges are now full-fledged research universities, attracting tens, if not hundreds, of millions of federal research dollars annually, and offering graduate education at the Ph.D. level. Community colleges in a number of states have been authorized to offer the baccalaureate in certain areas of the curriculum, effectively erasing the original educational boundary that separated them from the state colleges.

And what has driven these changes? Well, there’s no shortage of people to blame:

  1. Presidents of Colleges and Universities. Given the inherent competition that has always existed between institutions of higher learning (and, to be sure, competition is a fundamental strength of American higher education), it is not surprising that university presidents are constantly seeking to enhance the reputation of their campuses – and if that means growing in size, complexity and the number of research dollars, so be it.
  2. Governors. Governors quite reasonably would rather spend Washington’s money than raise state taxes – so if there are ways in which a state can obtain more dollars from Washington than its own citizens and businesses pay in federal taxes, governors are rarely shy about doing whatever it takes.
  3. Legislators. Individual legislators look to serve the needs of their districts. If there is an opportunity in their district to build a new campus, or expand an existing campus, legislators will be quick to seize it.

And who bears the consequences of these dramatic changes in the missions of public institutions of higher education? Parents, students and taxpayers in general have been significantly impacted, as many more federal and state tax dollars now flow to higher education (to support research and student aid, even as support for operating costs has fallen) – and, of course, tuition costs have skyrocketed.

So that’s what happened. Next let’s examine the consequences of what happened. And then we can figure out what to do about it.

Next week: Part 3.