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Public higher education, despite its purported commitment to democratic access, is becoming more and more inequitable. It consists, increasingly, of the have and have-not institutions. We are creating a “college chasm” and a “diploma disparity,” an “unequal and uneven” environment where the rich get richer and the poor get program cuts.

We need policies to ensure equal access to a high-quality postsecondary education.

Four recent articles, opinion essays and news reports capture, in a nutshell, an acknowledged truth about American public higher education. It’s not just public HBCUs that are inequitably funded. Or rural public universities. Or regional comprehensives. Or urban publics. It’s all of the above. And the drift is toward great inequality in resources, in student preparation, in the diversity of the student body and in access to high-demand majors.

The first of the articles, a front-page expose in the Wall Street Journal, is titled “Colleges Spend Like There’s No Tomorrow. ‘These Places Are Just Devouring Money.’” The article draws on audited financial reports and other financial statements to show that a spending spree at flagship campuses was largely funded by tuition hikes and fees, meaning that it’s students and their parents who are footing the bill. The newspaper’s surprise revelation is that many of flagships took in far more in tuition than they lost in state support with minimal oversight by trustees.

Where did the money go? Some went to technology, expanded student support services and intramural sports. Much went to luxury amenities such as modern dorms and new or upgraded stadiums. But what’s really shocking is that many of the outlays went to salaries and benefits for employees wholly unrelated to instruction or financial aid. In the article’s money lines:

“The University of Florida in 2022 had more than 50 employees with titles of director, associate director or assistant director of communications, roughly double the number it had in 2017. The school also employed more than 160 assistant, associate, executive and other types of deans last year, up from about 130 in 2017.”

“Inflation-adjusted spending on athletic coaches rose by about half between 2010 and 2022 at the median flagship …”

“For every $1 lost in state support at those universities over the two decades, the median school increased tuition and fee revenue by nearly $2.40, more than covering the cuts …”

There’s been some punch back. As one commentator responded:

“This ‘article’ is strictly an opinion piece thrown together with assertions, anecdotal evidence, flawed reasoning, and cherry-picked facts that pervade most paragraphs. It screams, “College spending is out-of-control.

The most important statement provided is this one: ‘At the median flagship university, spending rose 38% between 2002 and 2022.’

Inflation rose about 70% (2.56% per year, compounded annually) during this same period. Obviously, college spending has generally been under control."

That comment was based on a mistaken reading of the Journal's article.  The 38 percent increase in expenditures of flagship universities between 2002 and 2022 is above and beyond inflation. 

Even though the article is flawed and somewhat hyperbolic, it does raise an important issue. Why is the tuition at Concordia University for a Quebec resident for two semesters just $4,500 ($C) or about $3,400 ($US) compared to $10,858–$13,576 at the University of Texas at Austin?

It is, of course, easy to pick on higher ed finances. University budgets are incredibly complicated, given the importance of various cross-subsidies and rising expectations for the programs and services that universities are expected to provide. Many of the issues that the Journal’s report focuses on, like the gamesmanship of vying for full paying out-of-state and international students, reflect the fact that many flagships have few other means to generate revenue. Also, some of the recent investments in buildings is due to decades of deferred maintenance that simply couldn’t be put off any longer.

What the article also leaves out are the various ways an institution such as Penn State benefits the local and state economies, contributes to jobs and infrastructure, and provides other benefits that are not easily measured.

All that said, the article does raise troubling questions about how some flagships manage their resources, use their endowment and set tuition. Who could possibly disagree with a call for greater transparency, accountability and prioritization?

The Journal article shouldn’t be understood apart from another topic much in the news: athletic conference realignment. “No one,” reads one attention-grabbing headline, “is safe in the dash for cash.” The dominant West Coast conference, the Pac-12 is disintegrating, with Stanford and UC Berkeley among the big losers. The Power 5 is now the Power 2.

Tradition and historic regional rivalries? Out the window. The toll on student-athletes and travel costs? Irrelevant. Cinderella teams. Fuhgeddaboud them. Parity? Immaterial. Realignment is all about big time college football is predicated on television revenue.

What does this mean? A series of banner headlines describe the implications in a nutshell.

  • Conference realignment means less academic time for unpaid athletes.
  • Latest absurd college conference realignment makes a mess of math, geography.
  • The realignment frenzy in college athletics is all about football, and little consideration is given to the impact on other sports.
  • It’s not conference realignment. It’s consolidation.

We’ve entered a new era in intercollegiate athletics—the era of the super league, one more way that the leading public flagships are differentiating themselves from other institutions. The gap between the haves and have-nots widens further.

Another item: an opinion essay entitled “Regional Comprehensive Universities: Separate and Unequal,” argues persuasively that “gaps in resources between flagships and regional comprehensive universities raise serious equity concerns and are at odds with commitments to diversity, equity and inclusion.” The author, Doug Eskew, observes that Colorado’s “university system spends almost three times more on student instruction at the flagship campus—$13,700 per student in Fort Collins versus $4,787 in Pueblo.” The result: “a ‘ghettoized’ campus where disadvantaged students remain disadvantaged.”

The article raises an issue that legislatures, accreditors and faculty ought to grapple with. If we decry inequitable and inadequate K-12 expenditures in high poverty school districts, why don’t we care about similar spending disparities in higher education? Shouldn’t states do more to close higher education funding gaps and ensure that students from lower income backgrounds get their fair share of spending on financial aid and support services? Shouldn’t spending be based more on student need?

The last item that I’d like to bring to your attention appeared on WBUR’s OnPoint program. Entitled “What a decline in rural colleges means for rural communities,” this article makes several points well worth thinking about:

  • Rural students have historically had fewer choices in higher education than those in urban or suburban areas.
  • Many rural institutions have had to cut dozens of majors and academic programs to stay afloat.
  • Rural colleges are not only about providing access to an affordable higher education to local students, but also inextricably bound with their communities in essential ways. These institutions are often their communities’ largest and most vital employers.

A transcript is available here.

The recent Supreme Court decision gutting race conscious admissions has quite rightly prompted a lot of soul searching over issues of fairness, diversity and equity. But as many observers, including Richard Arum and Mitchell L. Stevens, have noted, we're talking about very few students. Just six percent of undergraduates attend a school with an acceptance rate of 25 percent or less. Even colleges that admit half their applicants are only attended by 10 percent of students. Over half of all students—56 percent—attend colleges and universities that admit three quarters of their applicants.

If this society were to truly care about fairness, equity and diversity, it would pay much more attention to the quality of the education that the broad-access institutions provide and ensure that the most accessible and affordable campuses have adequate funding.

Let me offer a few suggestions about how we might move forward. The key is for public universities to act more like integrated systems.

  1. University systems should expand course sharing to better meet student needs.

No student should ever be closed out of an essential class. All programs should be available to any student irrespective of their campus. I know the challenges: After all, the UT System’s Institute for Transformational Learning ran a course-sharing mechanism. Some campuses refuse to participate. Revenue splits are highly contentious. Some programs worry about attracting students who are less prepared academically. But if we truly want to improve access, retention and completion, course sharing needs to be an arrow in our quiver.

  1. Flagship campuses need to expand access to high demand graduate programs.

A bachelor’s degree isn’t sufficient for entry into many highly specialized fields. In a bid to compete with the best-resourced private research universities, many flagships (mine included) have adopted their strategy of restricting admission. Public programs, in my view, need to become much more democratic in terms of access, which was the case half a century ago.

Let me be clear: I am not calling for dismantling graduate programs at regional or urban campuses or giving flagships a monopoly over such programs. But public institutions should have a different mission than their private counterparts, and access is a big part of that mission.

  1. Public higher education funding needs to become much more equitable.

Let’s do for higher education what K-12 education has begun to do: better align public funding with student needs.

  1. Smaller rural, regional and urban publics might consider several innovative strategies.

One such strategy would resemble CUNY’s ASAP and ACE models, which emphasize enhanced advising, full-time enrollment, components involving major and career identification, and more intensive faculty mentoring.

Another possible approach might focus on the applied and experiential liberal arts, a model pioneered by Arthur Levine at now-defunct Bradford College, which seeks to balance a liberal and a practical education by weaving internships, mentored research experiences, skills training and applied learning opportunities alongside a more traditional liberal arts emphasis on a broad education stressing communication and critical thinking skills.

A third approach is to create more structured, integrated curricular pathways aimed at a particular career field, such as business, criminal justice, health care or technology innovation. These integrated pathways would rest on a series of synergistic courses in the humanities, social sciences and natural sciences, offering students a more coherent intellectual experience.

Two very different conceptions of public higher education exist in conflict. One vision, promoted by Clark Kerr, the first chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley, and 12th president of the University of California, envisioned a tiered, stratified and hierarchical system, clearly differentiating between research universities, broad-access four-year universities and community colleges.

A contrasting vision—favored by figures including Matthew Goldstein, the former chancellor of the City University of New York, and Alexandra Logue, his executive vice chancellor—was far less differentiated and far more seamless. This vision, which emphasizes access and cross-system mobility, is well spelled out in Logue’s study of the challenges implementing such a vision, Pathways to Reform.

I favor a public landscape which allows every public university campus to raise its stature and develop distinctive areas of specialization while ensuring that all students, wherever they enroll, have access to a high-quality liberal education with the supports those students need to succeed. The last thing we want is the kind of higher ed caste system that is, I fear, materializing and solidifying right before our eyes.

We may cry out “no justice, no peace,” and “equity now,” but the grim reality is that public higher education increasingly embodies the very kinds of entrenched inequities that faculty and students protest elsewhere in society.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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