It is my view that most of us engaged in education at our nation’s leading research universities focus our attention upon the wrong issues. These universities are wondrously complex institutions that defy easy analysis or understanding. We therefore tend to concentrate upon their most visible components, such as scientific research, star professors, state-of-the-art facilities and technology, economic development, international impact, and football and basketball teams.
It has become a cliché that American universities are the best in the world. This claim, while valid in important dimensions, can lead to complacency and neglect of serious problems.
Much of our international reputation is based upon two outstanding features of American universities: unrelenting commitment to an atmosphere of free and open inquiry, and excellence in scientific research. These twin advantages attract the best talent from around the world to American universities, not only to our graduate programs but increasingly to our undergraduate colleges as well.
In other aspects of our enterprise, however, we find ourselves hard-pressed. Our funding model, first of all, is under severe duress. States have repeatedly reduced their support of public universities, most severely in the past five years, a disinvestment that now threatens to erode their quality and competitiveness.
Some public universities have understandably attempted to make up the deficit in state support by raising undergraduate tuition aggressively and increasing the proportion of out-of-state students. But this strategy undermines the public mission of providing access, creates anger in the state, meets resistance in the legislature, and has now attracted the attention of the White House. As states have shifted the burden of paying for college from their general funds to students and their families, the perception has grown that higher education, once seen as a public good, has become a private interest. And these coping mechanisms, if continued, will lead to general deterioration in the quality of undergraduate education, the very part of our universities that depends most upon state support.
At private universities, tuition and fees plus room and board have, in some cases, reached $55,000 per year. Although most students do not pay that full cost, and though generous financial aid policies and endowment spending have actually brought down the real costs for the average student over the past five years, a degree carrying a price tag of well over $200,000 creates automatic sticker shock in the public. It also raises real questions about whether we have been paying enough attention to holding down expenses.
The airwaves are rife with predictions of disruptive change coming to the economic model of higher education. It is no wonder that parents paying and borrowing for a college education steer their children toward practical majors that seem to promise instant employment, and discourage them from studying the liberal arts and sciences in pursuit of a well-balanced education. A private interest in education today means a purely economic one.
From this inversion of values flows our second problem: a redefinition of the purpose of undergraduate education. Fifty years ago, when I started college, there was a widely shared view in America that the purpose of a college education was to prepare students to become educated citizens capable of contributing to society. College was in the public interest because it gave graduates an understanding of the world and developed their critical faculties.
Today, many Americans believe that the sole purpose of going to college is to get a job -- any job. The governors of Texas and Florida are quite clear on this point, and draw the corollaries that college should be cheap and vocational, even when delivered at major research universities like the Universities of Texas and Florida. A university education is more than ever seen as strictly utilitarian. The reasons are clear: a) as more students and families pay a large share of the costs, they naturally want a ready return on their investment; b) the most desirable jobs in this highly competitive job market require a college degree; and c) the gap in lifetime earnings between college and high school degree holders is huge.
Today, as many Americans hold a purely instrumentalist view of undergraduate education, they want a detailed accounting of its value. Hence our third problem: close public scrutiny and political accountability. Parents want to know, what did my daughter learn, and how does it contribute to her career? State legislatures want to know: what is the graduation rate at our university? How many undergraduate students do faculty members teach? And much more.
These questions put us in an uncomfortable position, because in some cases we do not know the answers, and in others we know them but do not like them. Many of us have eschewed the use of instruments assessing the value of general education, particularly at our major universities. We have, often for good reason, lacked confidence that such instruments are reliable measures of the value of a research university education, particularly if they are based on a one-size-fits-all approach.
However, given the level of scrutiny and skepticism in the public and in state houses, research universities need to take this issue seriously.
The professionalization of the professoriate has been crucially beneficial for research and graduate training at many institutions, but at most large universities, it has been problematic for undergraduate education. Several recent studies, some flawed but still indicative, have revealed that a significant percentage of students do not improve their critical thinking and writing much at all in the first two years of college. This should come as no surprise, given the dearth of small classes requiring active participation and intellectual interaction.
Too many students are adrift in a sea of courses having little to do with one another. Many courses, even at the upper division level, have no prerequisites, and many require no debate or public speaking or the writing of papers that receive close attention and correction. A student’s curriculum is a mélange of courses drawn almost haphazardly from dozens of discrete academic departments. And there is substantial evidence that students are fleeing demanding majors in favor of easier ones that have the added lure of appearing to promise immediate access to jobs.
The combination of drastic state disinvestment in public universities, student careerism, and pedagogical failings of our own has serious consequences for the country. To take one significant example, we now know that more than 50 percent of the students starting college with a stated desire to major in science or engineering drop out of those majors before graduating.
We can no longer blame this problem entirely on the nation’s high schools. A substantial body of research demonstrates conclusively that the problem is frequently caused by poor undergraduate teaching in physics, chemistry, biology, math, and engineering, particularly in the freshman and sophomore years. Students are consigned to large lecture courses that offer almost no engagement, no monitoring, and little support and personal attention. The combination of poor high school preparation and uninspiring freshman and sophomore pedagogy has produced a stunning dearth of science and engineering majors in the U.S. Our country now falls well behind countries like China and India in turning out graduates with strong quantitative skills.
According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the U.S. in 2009 ranked 27th among developed nations (ahead of only Brazil) in the proportion of college students receiving undergraduate degrees in science or engineering. As a result, American students are a dwindling proportion of our graduate enrollments in science and engineering. An administration report not only states that foreign students are earning more than half of U.S. doctoral degrees in engineering, physics, computer sciences, and economics but also estimates that the United States, under current assumptions, will in the next decade under produce college graduates in STEM fields by one million.
I fear the practical as well as intellectual consequences of these trends. However, I am not a pessimist; I am a realist. In this, the 150th anniversary year of the Morrill Act, I think we can do something to reverse these trends, if we muster our collective will to do so. The anticipated report of the National Research Council on the state of our research universities will, I hope, focus national attention on the problems and opportunities confronting these vital institutions.
But over time, the renewed public investment in higher education that our country needs is unlikely if we do not acknowledge our own shortcomings and begin to address them. First, we need to say loudly and clearly that improving undergraduate education will receive our closest attention and best efforts. We need to alter faculty incentives by making undergraduate teaching at least equal to research and graduate teaching in prestige, evaluation, and reward. And we need to do research-based teaching that takes account and advantage of the latest findings of cognitive science, which are extensive, on how students learn. In brief, they learn by doing, not by just listening to someone else; they learn by solving problems, not by passively absorbing concepts; they learn best in groups of peers working things out together.
Fortunately, some of our best universities are leading the way. Initiatives at such institutions as Johns Hopkins University, Stony Brook University, the University of Michigan,Stanford, Yale, and others offer great encouragement. The remarkable thing about them is the acknowledgment by faculty that we need to focus much more attention on undergraduate education, and that we need to deliver it more effectively than we have been doing. I find these examples exhilarating and promising.
At the Association of American Universities, we hope to disseminate the findings of such research across our universities, both public and private, and thus to stimulate more students to persist in their study of math and science and engineering. We have embarked on a five-year project led by top scientists and experts in science pedagogy designed to help science departments implement these new teaching methods. One of my hopes for the future of research universities is that student learning will be at the center of faculty concern, research will inform teaching, undergraduate classrooms will be places of engaged, participatory learning, and a university education will be not just a means to an entry-level job, but an invitation to a lifetime of learning.
I am well aware of the difficulty of changing those cultures. It will take a broad and deep effort to realize serious and sustainable gains. The stakes are high, not just for our universities but for the country. In the global knowledge economy, an educated public is essential not just to economic competitiveness but to national well-being.
Hunter Rawlings is president of the Association of American Universities. This article is adapted from a speech delivered on February 28, 2012, at the De Lange Conference at Rice University.
A former adviser to the University of Texas Board of Regents who is aligned with controversial reforms that have been touted by conservative groups and Governor Rick Perry issued a report Tuesday identifying what he called a “faculty productivity gap” at the two chief research institutions in the state.
Unfortunately, some of us are old enough to have passed through various incarnations of the accountability movement in higher education. Periodically university people or their critics rediscover the notion of accountability, as if the notion of being accountable to students, parents, legislators, donors, federal agencies, and other institutional constituencies were something new and unrecognized by our colleagues. We appear to have entered another cycle, signaled by the publication last month of a call to action by the State Higher Education Executive Officers (SHEEO) association, with support from the Ford Foundation, called "Accountability for Better Results."
The SHEEO report has the virtue of recognizing many of the reasons why state-level accountability systems fail, and focuses its attention primarily on the issue of access and graduation rates. While this is a currently popular and important topic, the SHEEO report illustrates why the notion of "accountability" by itself has little meaning. Universities and colleges have many constituencies, consumers, funding groups, interested parties, and friends. Every group expects the university to do things in ways that satisfy their goals and objectives, and seek "accountability" from the institution to ensure that their priorities drive the university’s performance. While each of these widely differentiated accountability goals may be appropriate for each group, the sum of these goals do not approach anything like "institutional accountability."
Accountability has special meaning in public universities where it usually signifies a response to the concerns of state legislators and other public constituencies that a campus is actually producing what the state wants with the money the state provides. This is the most common form of accountability, and often leads to accountability systems or projects that attempt to put all institutions of higher education into a common framework to ensure the wise expenditure of state money on the delivery of higher education products to the people.
In this form, accountability is usually a great time sink with no particular value, although it has the virtue of keeping everyone occupied generating volumes of data of dubious value in complex ways that will exhaust the participants before having any useful impact. The SHEEO report is particularly clear on this point.
This form of accountability has almost no practical utility because state agencies cannot accurately distinguish one institution of higher education from the other for the purposes of providing differential funding. If the state accountability system does not provide differential funding for differential performance, then the exercise is more in the nature of an intense conversation about what good things the higher education system should be doing rather than a process for creating a system that could actually hold institutions accountable for their performance.
Public agencies rarely hold institutions accountable because to do so requires that they punish the poor performers or at least reward the good performers. No institution wants a designation as a poor performer. An institution with problematic performance characteristics as measured by some system will mobilize every political agent at its disposal (local legislators, powerful alumni and friends, student advocates, parents) to modify the accountability criteria to include sufficient indicators on which they can perform well.
In response to this political pressure, and to accommodate the many different kinds, types and characteristics of institutions, the accountability system usually ends up with 20, 30 or more accountability measures. No institution will do well on all of them, and every institution will do well on many of them, so in the end, all institutions will qualify as reasonably effective to very effective, and all will remain funded more or less as before.
The lifecycle of this process is quite long and provides considerable opportunity for impassioned rhetoric about how well individual institutions serve their students and communities, how effective the research programs are in enhancing economic development, how valuable the public service activities enhance the state, and so on. At the end, when most participants have exhausted their energy and rhetoric, and when the accountability system has achieved stasis, everyone will declare a victory and the accountability impulse will go dormant for several years until rediscovered again.
Often, state accountability systems offer systematic data reporting schemes with goals and targets defined in terms of improvement, but without incentives or sanctions. These systems assume that the value of measuring alone will motivate institutions to improve to avoid being marked as ineffective. This kind of system has value in identifying the goals and objectives of the state for its institutions, but often relegates the notion of accountability to the reporting of data rather than the allocation of money, where it could make a significant difference.
If an institution, state, or other entity wants to insist on improved performance from universities, they must specify the performance they seek and then adjust state appropriations to reward those who meet or exceed the established standard. Reductions in state budgets for institutions that fail to perform are rare for obvious political reasons, but the least effective system is one that allocates funds to poorly performing institutions with the expectation that the reward for poor performance will motivate improvement. One key to effective performance improvement, reinforced in the SHEEO report, is strictly limiting the number of key indicators for measuring improvement. If the number of indicators exceeds 10, the exercise is likely to find all institutions performing well on some indicator and therefore all deserving of continued support.
Often the skepticism that surrounds state accountability systems stems from a mismatch between the goals of the state (with an investment of perhaps 30 percent or less of the institutional budget) and those of the institutions. Campuses may seek nationally competitive performance in research, teaching, outreach, and other activities. States may seek improvement in access and student graduation rates as the primary determinants of accountability. Institutions may see the state’s efforts as detracting from the institution’s drive toward national reputation and success. Such mismatches in goals and objectives often weaken the effectiveness of state accountability programs.
Universities are very complex and serve many constituencies with many different expectations about the institutions’ activities. Improvement comes from focusing carefully on particular aspects of an institution’s performance, identifying reliable and preferably nationally referenced indicators, and then investing in success. While the selection of improvement goals and the development of good measures are essential, the most important element in all improvement programs is the ability to move money to reward success.
If an accountability system only measures improvement and celebrates success, it will produce a warm glow of short duration. Performance improvement is hard work and takes time, while campus budgets change every year. Effective measurement is often time consuming and sometimes difficult, and campus units will not participate effectively unless there is a reward. The reward that all higher education institutions and their constituent units understand is money. This is not necessarily money reflected in salary increases, although that is surely effective in some contexts.
Primarily what motivates university improvement, however, is the opportunity to enhance the capacity of a campus. If a campus teaches more students, and as a result earns the opportunity to recruit additional faculty members, this financial reward is of major significance and will motivate continued improvement. At the same time, the campus that seeks improvement cannot reward failure. If enrollment declines, the campus should not receive compensatory funding in hopes of future improvement. Instead, a poorly performing campus should work harder to get better so it too can earn additional support.
In public institutions, the small proportion of state funding within the total budget limits the ability of state systems to influence campus behavior by reallocating funding. In particular, in many states, most of the public money pays for salaries, and reallocating funds proves difficult. Nonetheless, most public systems and legislatures can identify some funds to allocate as a reward for improved performance. Even relatively small budget increases represent a significant reward for campus achievements.
Accountability, as the SHEEO report highlights, is a word with no meaning until we define the measures and the purpose. If we mean accountability to satisfy public expectations for multiple institutions on many variables, we can expect that the exercise will be time consuming and of little practical impact. If we mean accountability to improve the institution’s performance in specific ways, then we know we need to develop a few key measures and move at least some money to reward improvement.
John V. Lombardi
John V. Lombardi, chancellor and professor of history at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, writes Reality Check every two weeks. Scott McLemee's column, Intellectual Affairs, will return Thursday.
The current controversies over admission practices of elite public and private institutions illustrate what happens when we allow ourselves to fight about the wrong things. This lack of critical thinking begins with a false premise and continues with an attack on institutions that do not conform to the false premise. Sometimes, rather than pointing out the false premise, institutions and their leaders react defensively as if the false premise were correct. Both attacker and respondent in this circumstance fail the test of critical thinking.
The error is usually at the beginning. Someone ( most recently the Education Trust, but the list of commentators who have taken the same tack is long) asserts that elite public universities should be admitting as many poor people as there are in the population of high school graduates in their states. Having asserted this erroneous notion, they compile data (that may also be flawed) using often unreliable methodologies, and issue a manifesto damning elite public universities because they don’t meet the original false premise. Rather than pointing out the error, some elite universities, sensing a politically correct risk, counter with data showing how much they do to recruit and subsidize the poor people who want to come to their university.
All this is not very helpful in addressing issues of access and affordability. We do indeed have to pay attention to the possibility that some graduates of high school who have the preparation and interest might be priced out of an opportunity to acquire a quality higher education, either by virtue of a high net cost of attendance or by the imposition of admissions standards that less affluent students find difficult to meet. This, however, is not a problem that belongs to elite public or private universities alone but is a challenge faced by all the providers of higher education in America. To focus on elite institutions is to make some pernicious and inaccurate assumptions about all the other institutions of higher education.
If we assume that everyone should have an equal opportunityto attend an elite public or private institution (since both are heavily subsidized by taxpayers), then we must also assume that attendance at a non-elite public or private institution represents an unsatisfactory and therefore unequal outcome for a student. If the community colleges, state colleges, non-flagship state institutions, and many non-elite private colleges represent an unsatisfactory and inequitable opportunity, compared to what we call elite institutions, that would seem to require us to assume that they do a poor job of educating students; that the results of their educational efforts are second rate; and that anyone who attends such places is sure to be deficient upon graduation. This kind of thinking may reflect the snobbery of some elite groups who can’t imagine a good education coming from a campus of the California State University system, or a fine education at a combination of Greenfield Community College and Westfield State College in Massachusetts. Such an assumption also reflects a profound ignorance about the actual academic performance of the students who graduate from these “non-elite” institutions.
The notion of “elite institution” deserves some attention. We who live and work in institutions labeled elite have every reason to accept the premise that only an education in our remarkable places is worth having even if we can present little evidence to demonstrate that our elite characteristics result in higher performance after graduation. Research that attempts to demonstrate the higher value of elite compared to non-elite education seems to indicate that while some people may benefit from instruction at a small private elite college, most students do just about as well after graduation, all other things being equal, whether they go to elite or non-elite institutions.
The elite status of an institution comes from its ability to spend more money than institutions deemed “non-elite.” These expenditures do indeed make a different institution. For example, a state flagship institution may have its faculty teaching only half time, assigning the other half time to research. The student activities supported by the elite institution may be more elaborate, the residential spaces more elegant, the quality of the buildings and other facilities more impressive, the student recreation center more comprehensive, and the intercollegiate sports program more nationally visible. These amenities define elite status for undergraduates, and many assume that the amenities reflect academic quality. Students and their parents like these amenities, they ask about them when they visit campus, and they appear willing to pay a premium for the opportunity to participate in the residential life of an elite university. Still, the data that would tell us that the students really learn more and will do much better after graduation as a result of these amenities is not very persuasive.
If we figure the cost of attendance at one of these elite institutions and compare it to the cost of attending a community college and state college, near where the student lives and where the student can hold down a job, we find that the best educational bargain by far is the community college-state college combination.
When we worry about whether poor people can get access to college, some imagine that a zero cost of attendance will solve the problem. That doesn’t really work. Even when an institution pays for the tuition and fees, including room and board, for students below some income marker, these students still come up short an additional $10K to make up for the opportunity cost of living away from home and losing the income from a regular 12-month part-time or full-time job. The public cost of subsidizing elite education for all is very high for rather limited gains. And, of course, there are not enough spots in what we call elite institutions to accommodate all the deserving students of all income levels.
Because space is limited, even in elite public institutions with enrollments over 40,000, the institutions select students based on various criteria, some related to geography, some related to ethnicity, some related to academic preparation, and some related to athletic skill. It would certainly be possible to add other criteria to this list to try and achieve an equal opportunity for all students. However, the only truly “fair” admission process would do what we suggested in an earlier Reality Check: fill the class using random selection from a pool composed of all high school graduates who meet the institution’s minimum admission criteria. There is a certain simplistic charm to this notion.
What’s the great benefit, then, that the elite institutions provide? Well, they are elite and they are expensive, and they have luxuries that aren’t available at the community college or state college, or non-elite private institution. Do they do a better job of helping students who have deficient high school preparation succeed? Surely not better than the community college that specializes in serving these constituencies.
The real issue for any state is whether its total system of public higher education is effectively serving the people for whom the institutions are intended. If we believe that only elite public research institutions provide quality academic preparation and degrees, we should close the community colleges, the state colleges, and the university campuses not deemed “elite” and transfer those funds and the responsibility for serving all graduates of the state’s high schools to elite institutions and require them to expand their enrollments to accommodate all the college bound students of the state.
This solution, impossible of course, would result in each elite institution reinventing community colleges, non-elite campuses located near the communities from which the students come, and investing only a fraction of the funding available in the high priced research university environment that many people define as elite.
The failure of critical thinking about how to provide quality higher education to all citizens leads people to confuse two challenges. The first is how a state should construct a higher education system that will ensure access for all qualified and interested students. The second is how to express hostility toward politically incorrect elite institutions. The first challenge is worth worrying about; the second one is just plain silly.
Here’s a ray of hope to restore prestige and morale to our beleaguered flagship state universities: let’s have “A&M” stand for “Athletics & Medicine.”
It’s a sorely needed change from the archaic 19th century acronym, “Agricultural & Mechanical.” This branding will provide state universities with both a jump start and truth in advertising about their priorities. After more than a quarter century of grumbling by presidents that they are losing resources and falling behind their elite private research university counterparts, public higher education has an opportunity to put new wine into the old A&M bottle. After all, “Athletics & Medicine” are the front doors and neon signs that now showcase an enterprising, dynamic state university.
Who will miss the old “A&M”? At most only a few curmudgeons. The change is timely because at many land grant universities the traditional “A” already has tended to disappear. Consider the case of the University of California, Berkeley, for example, where the historic, famous College of Agriculture has changed its name to the “College of Natural Resources.” What about the “M”? Originally it meant “mechanics” -- a 19th century usage that approximates our notion of “engineering.” But “Mechanics” has little name recognition today and can be confusing because it is likely to bring to mind the vocational training programs in auto repair or air conditioning service provided by community colleges. In other words, the old “A&M” shell is vacant and ready to accommodate the new contenders, “Athletics & Medicine.”
Let’s consider the strengths and similarities of this dynamic duo. First, both represent high profile units of the university. Second, both are not only highly visible, they also are seen as indispensable. Third, both are expensive -- they bring in a lot of resources and also spend a lot. Fourth, both activities are integral to the local economy through services, construction, and employment. The new “A&M” also retains fidelity to the historic land grant service mission. Hospitals and clinics certainly represent health service to the public. And big time athletics can even make a case for itself.
Two years ago a commissioner of a major athletics conference said in earnest that at the state universities in his conference, football ought to be regarded as a form of public service. True, this is not exactly the same as providing extension assistance on crop rotation -- but who’s to say that a state university team in the BCS championship or in the NCAA basketball Final Four has not reached out to the entire state’s population?
Academic Medical Centers (AMC) have represented a story of growth in the past decade. A College of Medicine and its affiliates can no longer be described as merely one of many academic units because it has achieved a size, prestige and power that have transformed its presence. It’s not unusual for a medical center and related health sciences nowadays to constitute more than half of a flagship university’s faculty positions.
Furthermore, for a university with an annual operating budget of about $2 billion, the Academic Medical Center often accounts for 40 percent or more of the total university expenditures.
Athletics and Medicine provide an interesting symmetry in hiring, as both share the ability to compete for talent in a high priced market. Hiring a new coach can, for example, be balanced by hiring a researcher with an M.D. and Ph.D. whose work deals with finding a cure for a serious disease. And, both new hires command a retinue of assistants, staff, and incentive bonuses to supplement base salaries. They are together the super stars of academia.
A flagship state university anchored on one end of the campus with the big “A” and anchored on the other end by the big “M” is formidable. Both units command new, expensive facilities -- which often become obsolete relatively quickly. And the expanding, large facilities mean that the two units occupy a substantial percentage of campus real estate.
There are, of course, a few liabilities in showcasing Athletics and Medicine as the new “A&M.” Although both bring in a lot of money, whether in television revenues, ticket sales, major donations, Medicaid payments, federal grants, or fees from clinics, these fertile sources can be precarious.
Six years ago, for example, an article in the Los Angeles Times reported that UCLA’s medical center “struggled for months with wobbly finances and internal dissension,” characterized by a consulting firm’s report as “problems ranging from inconsistent billing and plummeting revenues to a disorganized administration in which job duties overlapped.” Perhaps the best example of the financial fragility of the expensive university medical centers came about a decade ago at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. -- where a shortfall in the medical center income led the university president to try to impose an internal tax on the law school and business school as a convenient source of medical center fiscal fitness.
Today, a university medical center typically faces three sources of financial risk: first, a downturn in number of patients, and empty hospital beds run up expenses quickly. Second, any reduction in the federal Medicaid or Medicare reimbursement rate will require university medical centers to reduce drastically their income projections. Third, although many academic medical centers enjoy financial autonomy due to their own large endowments, these have quickly become undependable. It’s not unprecedented, for example, that a university medical center endowment of $250 million in 2007 (most of which was earmarked to pay for an aggressive capital expansion and building program) by 2009 has shrunk about 40% down to $150 million -- a one year loss of $100 million due to unproductive investment choices. If and when these shortfalls do occur, most likely the state government and/or the university will bail out the medical center -- it’s too big, too visible, and holds too much of an investment to be abandoned by its host university.
The same dynamics hold for flagship state universities with NCAA Division I intercollegiate athletics programs. A losing season in a revenue sport such as football or men’s basketball quickly can bring a decline in ticket revenues and fewer invitations to be selected for nationally televised games. However, even if this were to happen, it’s hard to imagine a state university abandoning football or basketball. The programs have become so important that their expenses must be covered, even if that were to mean transferring resources from other parts of the university.
What about the consequences for other academic units located on campus between the anchors of Athletics and Medicine? One possible concern is the endurance of the “A&S” acronym for “Arts & Sciences.” Since this unit probably has increased difficulty in claiming primacy in the contemporary state university, a possible reform is to amend their branding to reflect a new, diminished status. “A&S” could be re-branded as “a & s” – lower case to connote shrinking budgets, deteriorating centrality, and reduced visibility.
Numerous recent articles have carried the message that public higher education must reconfigure and re-think its priorities and principles. The “New A&M” model featuring Athletics and Medicine provides a timely, dynamic blueprint for updating the historic land grant commitment.
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
Joseph E. Aoun is president of Northeastern University.