Our nation’s system of public higher education is in crisis. Unprecedented funding cuts give us several reasons to be concerned: First, about 70 percent of American college students attend public colleges and universities, which means more than 12 million students may be directly affected. Second, many public institutions produce a wealth of valuable research that serves as an engine for both regional and national economic growth.
Less well known is that the crisis in the publics has the potential to undermine the high quality of American higher education as a whole. While state budget cuts may appear to be aimed at the publics, we will all be poorer if our renowned system is allowed to falter. As a result, everyone in the academy -- even those of us in private institutions -- should be thinking of ways to revitalize public higher education.
While there is talk in academic circles of various reforms, two specific changes would go a long way toward helping public institutions strengthen their positions: revamping public university governance, and establishing a progressive tuition structure.
A diversified model
Anyone who spends time outside the U.S. knows that American higher education remains the envy of the world. One of the characteristics that distinguishes our system from others is that the U.S. does not have a centralized approach to higher education. There is no government minister who provides a uniform curriculum or one national research agenda.
The American system is decentralized, which allows for a diversity of approaches and a significant amount of experimentation and innovation. It also fosters healthy competition. Small schools compete with large schools; publics compete with privates; comprehensive universities compete with liberal arts colleges. And there is spirited competition within these groups.
The result is an educational richness not found in other parts of the world. Some liberal arts programs specialize in teaching great books, while others excel in music and the arts. Other institutions become known for their scientific or technical degrees. There are different learning models as well, ranging from traditional classroom education to experiential learning, which involves the integration of classroom study and real-world experience.
There is no one-size-fits-all -- our students are free to choose from a wide range of educational models best suited to their learning styles and future aspirations.
The same dynamic is present in research. Although federal support for university research is a key component -- and there are certainly government research priorities -- there is ample room for faculty- and institution-driven initiatives. Myriad government and private funding sources provide support for a range of different priorities and possibilities. Some institutions are powerhouses in energy or life sciences, while others focus research efforts on economics, agriculture or urban issues.
A threat to our leadership position
Like most competitive models, the American approach to higher education works best when there is a degree of equilibrium within the system -- robust peer groups that force creativity and innovation. When a substantial sector of the group is weakened, disequilibrium is introduced, which threatens the competitive dynamic.
This is what we’re seeing today as the nation’s public institutions struggle financially. Nearly 40 percent of the nation’s colleges and universities are public institutions -- a substantial share of the overall system.
It is certainly true that private institutions have not been immune from the current downturn. We’re all aware that endowments have plummeted, fundraising is flat, and demand for financial aid has increased, putting additional pressure on strained budgets. But the public crisis appears to be both broader and deeper, with the potential to be with us for years to come.
The state of California provides the starkest example. This year, $800 million in funding cuts have forced furloughs of faculty and staff in both the UC and Cal State systems. This means that classes will become even more crowded and faculty members -- already stretched thin -- will have less time to work closely with students.
There will also be an increase in the number of students turned away. The UC system alone (not including Cal State schools or community colleges) is planning to reduce freshman enrollment by 6 percent. In a system of 220,000 students this amounts to more than 13,000 people who will be denied access.
The pain is by no means limited to California. Across the country -- from Michigan to Wisconsin to Virginia -- states are facing revenue shortfalls and making significant cuts to higher education. Even $825 million in federal stimulus -- the portion targeted for all of higher education -- is not enough to offset the extensive cuts made by state governments.
The timing could not be worse. President Obama has underscored what those of us in higher education know to be true: the nation’s economic prosperity is dependent on our system of higher education. The president has noted that jobs requiring a college degree are growing at twice the rate of jobs that require no higher education.
It is the quality of the American system that will develop the human capital needed for our economy to recover and prosper over the long term.
Opportunities for change
Of course, with every crisis comes opportunity. The current situation can pave the way for public higher education to gain some much-needed flexibility and autonomy. By unshackling these systems from some state-mandated controls, they can be revitalized and continue to play an essential role in ensuring the success of American higher education.
We will see a range of innovations such as three-year degree programs, the concept of “cyber campuses,” and more nonresidential education. Each has the potential to reduce costs or generate revenue -- or both.
More fundamental changes will be needed. Two in particular will give public institutions greater control over their own destinies. The first will be effective in the short term, while the second will empower public institutions to introduce and support long-term innovations:
- Progressive tuition: We are seeing many public systems raise fees as one way to shore up their finances. But this regressive approach runs the risk of reducing access for those already struggling to pay for college. Another option would be for publics to raise tuition, while providing more need-based financial aid. By pledging that students from families earning under a certain amount -- say $100,000 -- can attend at no cost (and those above a certain threshold would pay on a sliding scale) public colleges can generate valuable revenue, while maintaining the all-important mission of access.
- Reform governance: Board members at public institutions are primarily political appointees. While most are knowledgeable and dedicated, the political process by which they are appointed often results in a divergence of views and priorities. Allowing presidents, chancellors, and existing board members to appoint trustees -- standard practice at most private colleges and universities -- would strengthen the ability of public boards to play a strategic role in guiding their institutions.
More than ever, the country needs higher education to do what it does best: develop human and intellectual capital, and be the engine of progress for the nation. The future of American higher education -- and indeed the nation -- will depend on our ability to maintain a vibrant, diverse and competitive model of higher learning.
Both private and public institutions are critical in this endeavor and must be empowered to succeed.
Joseph E. Aoun is president of Northeastern University.