Location, Location, Location

Why do some public colleges always seem to fare better on state appropriations than others? Research helps, but so does a campus in a Democratic state.
June 10, 2009

Whether the money is flowing or being cut, one constant of public higher education discussions is the question of who is getting more money from the state -- and why. Presidents, trustees and alumni debate the equity of funding formulas, and plot strategies so that their institutions might also be favored by those who control the purse-strings.

Two new studies suggest that strategy may go only so far and that, in some respects, public universities are like real estate: They benefit from location, location, location. The best locations may be in states led by Democrats (and with other political conditions) and in cities in or near statehouses. The studies don't contest the way research universities receive more per student than do other kinds of institutions, although they suggest that in states with a flagship and multiple research universities, flagship status may be less important than believed, and that research universities tend to be favored.

The emphasis of the papers is on qualities -- beyond being a research university -- that explain patterns in which some institutions end up doing better than others (or less worse than others), factoring in their missions.

One study, which will appear shortly in The Journal of Higher Education, looks at 20 years of data on state appropriations for higher education and a variety of political conditions. Over the two decades studied (a time period in which many Republicans embraced higher education as a tool for state economic development), the researchers found that Republican legislative strength, Republican governors and the relative strength of governors were associated with lower levels of state spending on colleges.

In contrast, states were more likely to spend more on higher education if they had more lobbyists representing higher education and professionalized legislatures.

A new article in the Journal of Education Finance also takes a comparative approach, matching state appropriations with other factors. This analysis found as well that Democrats spend more on higher education than do Republicans. But this piece stressed the importance of location within a state. Campuses close to statehouses have an edge over other campuses, as do those with more alumni in key positions in state government. In terms of functions performed, research and graduate education are favored, but the location still factors in.

One might read the papers and think that location is so important that there's not much for a college to do if it is not a research university and is located far from state legislative activity.

But Michael K. McLendon, associate professor of public policy and higher education at Vanderbilt University, and an author on the teams that did both studies, said that's only part of the equation. (The other authors are Christine Mokher of CNA Corporation for both papers; William Doyle of Vanderbilt for the Journal of Education Finance article; and James Hearn of the University of Georgia for the Journal of Higher Education article.)

"Some of our findings do point to state contextual factors over which institutions may have little direct control," McLendon said. But he added that "overall our research suggests that institutions may have quite a lot of control over their fates." He noted, for instance, that there are clear relationships between university lobbying activity and appropriations outcomes. Spending on government relations, he said, may well "pay off."

In terms of the preference for research universities over other institutions, McLendon said that while the papers did not address the wisdom of such a view, he personally saw the value in support for science and research, but also had some reservations.

He said that the problem is one of "mission creep," as research is stressed more at "primarily teaching institutions," which may be more valuable to states because they graduate teachers and nurses. "States need to do a better job of defining, rewarding, and enforcing fidelity-to-mission by public four-year universities," he said.


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