Responding to a Congressional request, the National Research Council has now convened a committee to study the health of the nation’s research universities and to identify strategies for advancing their role in U.S. prosperity, security, and global competitiveness in the 21st century. This is both an intensely timely issue and one with a very long history. While they have long been with us, these questions have never been more urgent than in the current period of economic uncertainty, as devastating budget cuts and widespread disinvestment are threatening the foundation of our nation’s higher education system, and its research universities in particular.
To define a course of action for the 21st century U.S. research university, the newly formed committee would do well to look to the roots of this question in the 19th century. We are approaching the 150th anniversary of the U.S. policy that has been key to shaping the evolution of public higher education in general and the American research university in particular: the 1862 Morrill Act.
Also known as the Land Grant College Act, this federal legislation made public higher education possible for millions of Americans, extending it beyond the rich, the clergy, and the privileged, and creating the opportunity for anyone with the talent and the motivation to benefit from an advanced education. This act surely helped to create an unprecedented century of American prosperity, fueled by the innovation, discovery, and knowledge generated from our classrooms and research laboratories. It also established today’s paradigm, with the states responsible for much of the fundamental budget and policy regulation of public colleges and universities.
But as the sesquicentennial of this landmark law draws closer, instead of celebrating its legacy, the nation steadily is letting it slip away, and eroding a cornerstone of our democracy in the process. In state after state, fundamental higher education budgets are being ruthlessly slashed to a degree never seen before, compromising the fundamental operating basis of public higher education.
This current model is simply unsustainable. State by state, we are deconstructing a great American institution without the type of public debate and examination that rightfully must accompany a social policy change of this magnitude, and doing so in the utter absence of any realistic and coordinated overarching national strategy for public higher education. Moreover, the research universities, with the breadth of their sophisticated activities, more than other sectors of the public higher education enterprise, are disproportionately threatened by this instability.
The future of our nation’s public higher education institutions is too important to leave in the hands of individual states. As the framers of the Morrill Act forecast, and as the foundation of this new federal panel reaffirms, a strong public higher education system anchored by excellent research universities is key to building U.S. economic, intellectual, and technological strength, as well as to ensuring our national security and global competitiveness. We all have a stake in this, and we need public policy that advances our public research universities as an investment in our collective well-being.
The time is ripe for our nation’s leadership to take a fresh approach to this issue while pushing this policy discussion into the public arena, and the creation of the National Research Council Committee on Research Universities is a promising foundation for such a conversation. I hope that the committee’s deliberations will serve to frame a larger national debate about establishing a broad, overarching national public higher education policy. In place of the short-term, narrowly defined tactical fixes based on political trends of the day that our states have shown of late, we need a long-range, carefully considered national strategy to define the role of public higher education in our nation’s future, and to shape the long-term policies best equipped to support this role.
Such a debate should begin by affirming the basic notion of why we need a strong system of public higher education in this country, and proceed to explore how we can best achieve this objective. Several critical questions and proposals are already being raised within the national higher education community, and would help to frame this debate. Some of my colleagues, for example, have called for a new Morrill Act reaffirming federal investment in public higher education, with a focus on urban-serving universities. Others call upon states to resume the chief role in paying for public higher education systems, while others suggest creating a group of federally-funded super land grant universities. And as the global economic crisis makes such federal and state support increasingly more challenging, growing numbers are calling for universities to be empowered to generate revenue independently through entering into strategic public-private partnerships and introducing key elements of free market competition.
Whatever shape these conversations ultimately take, I hope they will urge a careful, strategic discussion at Congressional and Administration levels, as well as topping the agendas of major higher education associations such as the Association of American Universities and Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities. The result? A clear and widely-understood national strategy shaped by broad-ranging, active public debate will help ensure that our campuses continue to contribute significantly not only to the advancement of education and research, but also to the economic strength and security of our communities, regions, and nation. Fueling an innovation-based economy in the 21st century by sustaining our research legacy will improve quality of life and maintain our healthy democracy. Our success in reversing the plight of public higher education would also mean the preservation of a positive U.S. economic and political impact globally.
Nationally, we need to return to the view that public higher education is a public good. And we need to recognize that for its critical and foundational impact to continue, maintaining a strong higher education system, guided by a long-range, strategic federal policy, must remain one of our highest national priorities.
If we succeed, we will be able to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Morrill Act as the fulfillment of the foresight and value of our American public higher education system, just as its authors intended — not as an occasion for regret as we look back on the remarkable legacy we squandered in times of short-term financial difficulties.
John B. Simpson
John B. Simpson is president of the University at Buffalo, of the State University of New York.
When I was a student, then faculty member, then administrator at private universities — a mere 40+ years — land-grant institutions were not front and center in my consciousness. Having now moved to a land-grant institution, I have concluded they are one of the most precious if not always most highly visible resources this nation has.
Our nation needs to broaden what "greatness" in a university means. At the very least, we need to expand our conception of greatness to a multidimensional notion, not just a notion of unidimensional rankings as appear in certain magazines. Land-grant institutions, contrary to some popular beliefs, are not merely about agricultural development, but rather, about changing the world in a positive, meaningful, and enduring way. Land-grant institutions perhaps best represent the very core of what greatness means in American society -- namely, equal opportunity for all and, through it, the chance to make our society and the world a better place in which to live.
Land-grant institutions are not, for the most part, perceived as being among the most "elite" universities of the nation, although there are exceptions. Yet, they accomplish some things that are truly extraordinary.
First, whereas the most selective institutions in the country are highly focused on entry value -- seeking students with the highest grades, test scores, and high-school records of "extracurricular activities" -- land-grant institutions typically are particularly focused on "value added" -- producing the future leaders who make the world a better place. Typically, land-grant institutions willingly and even gladly will take students with a wider range of grades and test scores because their mission is to provide access, not to restrict entry. A necessary qualification, of course, is that the students admitted are able to do the work, either upon admission or with remediation and enrichment. Land-grant institutions generally have honors programs, but often the focus is not just on how academically smart you are, but on how much of your smartness you can give back to the world. What is important in a land-grant institution is developing future ethical leaders who will enrich their communities and their societies, in whatever way.
The most selective institutions, of course, are also concerned about adding value. But their admissions numbers, with selectivity rates often in the single digits, may result in the message to many students that they may be good, but not quite good enough. Ratings such as those of U.S. News & World Report reward institutions that reject lots of applicants but thereby are not fully consistent with the land-grant mission. The game becomes somewhat perverse: get lots of applicants so you can reject them to prove how exclusive you are as an institution. In land-grant institutions, providing access is especially important for students from low-opportunity households whose only chance to go to college may be at the land-grant university. Often, their education and socialization have provided them with only minimal scaffolding for a college education.
Second, graduation from a land-grant may not always give students the same level of brand equity as they would obtain at the most selective institutions, although there are many employers who are impressed with the initiative and hard work that so many students from land-grant institutions are prepared to offer. The land-grant diploma is a ticket to improve yourself sufficiently that so that later you will be in a position to prove your worth. It has proud brand equity. Usually, the student’s initial job placement will be determined by accomplishments more than by the brand equity of the school that the student attended. It will be up to the student, in the American tradition, to raise him- or herself by the bootstraps. At some future time, perhaps, members of our society will realize more and more the extraordinary value that may be hidden behind the land-grant diploma.
Third, in admissions, the most selective institutions tend to be organized around a relatively fixed notion of human abilities and skills. Requiring sky-high SATs and ACTs make sense as important (although not exclusive) bases of admission only if one believes that they measure relatively fixed traits that project the future potential of the applicant. If abilities are highly modifiable, in contrast, then such test scores assess potentials largely at certain intervals in time and one can look at the college or university as providing a "zone of potential development" to help students use the ability levels they are at as starting points, not just as ending points. From the point of view of the land-grant mission, access provides a way for students to achieve the equal opportunity our society promises. Abilities are indeed modifiable so the institution can help each student reach the outer level of those abilities--to translate abilities into competencies and competencies into expertise.
Fourth, land-grant institutions tend to have a broad sense of what abilities are -- these institutions are about admitting people who will make the difference to the state and the society that was embodied by the principles of the Morrill Act. Land-grant institutions typically require standardized test scores, but not at the levels required by elite colleges. In our society, in part as a result of the No Child Left Behind Act, we place so much emphasis on narrow abilities and knowledge that often students who are the "best" academically have had little incentive to develop the emotional intelligence, practical intelligence, and wisdom-based skills that are needed to lead the institutions of society. Hence one can end up with particular leaders who were educated at elite institutions -- who are very smart in an SAT sense -- and then sometimes prove unable to connect with the rest of the population and who create financial and ethical messes because their analytical skills were never adequately complemented by the creative, practical, and wisdom-based skills they need truly to succeed as leaders.
Fifth, evaluation of scholarship and research takes on a particular cast in a land-grant institution. All institutions are, or at least should be, pleased when a scholar publishes in the journals with the best reputation and citation rate. But in many private institutions, it matters little or not at all whether the work has any implications of the betterment of the state and society, not only in the short run, but even in the long run. Sometimes, work that has implications for the betterment of society actually is viewed with suspicion. The result is a kind of curious disconnection between the university and the society. In a land-grant institution, traditional scholarly quality still matters, but work that gives back to society receives especial plaudits. It thus becomes easier for state legislatures and the people of a state to see why research is important to them, not merely to the advancement of individual researchers’ scholarly careers.
Sixth, service and outreach have a have a particular meaning in a land-grant institution. In private institutions, research, teaching, and service all count toward promotion and tenure, but often, service is in last place in this triad. In a land-grant institution, service is more integrated into the fabric of teaching and research. Service is the reason for being of the land-grant institution, so service learning, research with potential applications, and outreach are intrinsic to its mission.
Finally, in the land-grant institution, the emphasis on give-back leads to the centrality of ethical leadership and wisdom as the core values of the learning experience. “Smartness” is valued, but as a means of giving back. Wisdom is the use of one’s smartness and knowledge for a common good through the infusion of positive ethical values, and because the land-grant institution must give back to the state and the country in order to fulfill its mission, its graduates cannot be viewed as truly successful according to the mission of the college or university unless they embody this ideal.
Whereas some of us may think of land-grant institutions as needing to emulate the most elite institutions, perhaps these elite institutions would benefit as much or more from adopting some of the land-grant values. As our society becomes ever more socially and economically stratified and the middle class vanishes, with high correlations between educational opportunities and socioeconomic status, we have an obligation, as a society, to ask whether things are going where we want them to go. What kinds of leaders do we want to develop? Is it possible that the huge emphasis on memory and analytical skills reflected by tests such as the SAT and ACT, and embodied in college-admissions processes, are having effects opposite to what we as a society might hope for? Are we producing leaders who are analytically adept but who fail in a wise and emotionally connected way to engage deeply with the crises our society currently is facing? Do we want a society in which we care more about how narrowly smart people are than about how wise and ethical they are? Land-grant institutions in many ways reflect the ideals of the American dream. They have a unique role in helping to achieve that dream that is not being captured by magazine ratings based on narrow criteria that have led our society to a precipice.
Robert J. Sternberg
Robert J. Sternberg is provost, senior vice president and professor of psychology at Oklahoma State University. He is a former president of the American Psychological Association and is president of the International Association for Cognitive Education and Psychology.
The old saying that the privileged class “does not know how the other half lives” seems true in higher education.
At my private liberal arts institution, a faculty committee is concerned that a rule requiring three years of service between a paid untenured leave and paid sabbatical leave is unfair to some faculty members. The faculty is resisting another committee’s proposal to meet a government mandate by adding instructional activities to courses that we consider equivalent to four-hour courses elsewhere yet meet for only three hours per week here. Adding instruction undercuts our recent reduction to a five-course teaching load, and will seem even more like a “take-back” when faculty members calculate how little they will benefit from the small percentage raise approved for 2011-2012, which will be sliced into pieces for merit, equity, and market adjustments to keep each rank near the middle of its comparison group.
These concerns are similar to those at other selective private liberal arts colleges and universities, but readers who work at other types of institutions must be thinking, “Give me a break!” when they read about our woes. For us, these are not trivial issues, as they deal with equity and fair compensation. But they are trivial compared to the larger financial issues confronting this nation’s higher education system -- they are little chunks of ice compared to the iceberg of problems crushing less financially secure private institutions and almost all public institutions.
In his eye-opening 2008 book,The Last Professors:The Corporate University and the Fate of the Humanities, Frank Donoghue argues that American higher education is being divided into two sectors based on financial stability and prestige. My concern is that the “haves” are aware of neither the problems affecting the “have-nots” nor the fact that strains underlying those problems are destroying the foundations of nonprofit higher education as a whole. It is time for those in wealthy, selective institutions to “wake up and smell the coffee” of a national affordability crisis.
Consider the young people growing up in our own college town, who rarely attend our private college or any private college, more typically attending institutions supported by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Our new governor has just announced his budget proposal, which would represent, according to Graham Spanier, president of Pennsylvania State University, the “single-largest appropriation cut in the history of higher education.” The 50 percent reduction in appropriations would decrease support of the 14 state-owned institutions and four state-related institutions by $660 million, including reducing support of Penn State’s budget by $182 million from an already low 8 percent to 4 percent. Public college tuitions, already above average for the nation, could increase as much as 20-25 percent. How would this affect our children and those of our neighbors?
Similar funding crises in other states are in the news, but those of us working in the relative comfort of selective private education generally have not realized the extent of the problem. Nor have we recognized that many of the major public institutions now receive so little support from their states that they are appropriately designated public-assisted or state-assisted. Tom Mortenson’s analysis in the February 2011 Postsecondary Education OPPORTUNITY illustrates not only the dramatic increase in average state fiscal support for higher education from 1961 to 1980 but also the more remarkable decrease of 39.8 percent from 1980 to 2011, with 2011 levels approximating those of 1967. Mortenson describes as ironic the concurrence of the funding decrease with this era’s emphasis on the relationship of higher education with income and well-being.
However, it is this very human-capital benefit that has allowed government to abandon responsibility for supporting higher education as a public good and shift cost to the consumer. Less directly, it has has allowed private institutions to shift their emphasis away from need-based aid guaranteeing affordability. My colleagues do not want our private college to educate only wealthy students, and they definitely want a public alternative for students who cannot afford private higher education.
But they need to know the trends in state funding, that students qualifying for Pell Grants (i.e., lower income students) rarely attend our institution or any of the top-tier private institutions, that need-based aid plays a shrinking role for needy students in both private and public education, and that the average debt for graduates who borrow to attend private and public institutions is high and growing higher.
Although the need to defend the value of high-cost private education has made us accustomed to thinking of public institutions in this state and elsewhere as competitors, I would ask my colleagues to think as citizens interested in the welfare of the population of our state and nation, and the welfare of the nation’s system of higher education. We should do so because, even though higher education benefits the individual graduate, it still is a public good. This public good comprises both the contributions of the graduates to society and the existence of the colleges and universities as cultural institutions that are contributors to new knowledge and repositories of knowledge, both knowledge with obvious practical benefits and knowledge with less obvious benefits such as helping us understand what it means to be human.
We also should think as defenders of higher education as a whole for the sake of equity -- because our own educations have been supported as a public good. Some government or nonprofit entity granted us part of the cost of our higher education not as personal gifts to individuals but because of a belief that it was fair for equally capable people to have equal opportunities, or that it was good for society for people like us to have that education. This help was given through government support of our public or private institutions, scholarships, subsidized work-study, subsidized loans, or, less visibly, through subsidies beyond the advertised cost provided by endowments of nonprofit private institutions. Finally, we should support public higher education, as well as our own private sector, because it is likely that our grandchildren, if not our children, will be unable to afford private higher education.
I would ask my colleagues to recall the educational history of their own families. My family has benefited enormously from the past generosity of the American higher education system and government support. In the late 1930s, my father was able to work and put himself through his low-cost hometown public institution. My mother received a scholarship to a private woman’s college; when her family ran out of money, an administrator there paid her remaining fees out of back wages owed her by the financially strapped institution.
In the 1960s, my husband and I both received generous need-based scholarships to selective private institutions, and mine was supplemented by a National Defense Education Act loan (50 percent of which was forgiven for my first five years of college teaching). Our graduate education was entirely paid by the government (National Science Foundation and Public Health Service) and by our private university’s endowment.
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, over half of both our children’s tuition at private institutions was paid as a tuition benefit by my current institution. Both of our children also received advanced degrees at low-tuition public institutions, one with a teaching assistantship that paid even that tuition. Most of my colleagues have similar histories, perhaps with a larger contribution from public education. If private tuitions continue to increase at many times the rate of inflation, public tuitions continue to increase at a rate faster than private tuitions, and loans increasingly replace scholarship aid, will our grandchildren have similar opportunities?
Surprisingly, the College Board website presents the projected average for four years of tuition and fees for students beginning in 2028 at a private institution ($340,800) or an in-state public institution ($95,000) as though families can prepare for these costs. In his 2010 book Crisis on Campus, Mark Taylor argues that a four-year education at the more expensive top-tier private colleges and universities, which currently cost around $50,000 per year, would cost an astounding $661,792 for a student beginning in 2028. Such costs would seriously undermine the argument that the human capital benefits make even an expensive private school education “worth it” in terms of future earnings.
Although the skyrocketing costs of higher education are not primarily due to increases in faculty salaries, I do not think my colleagues realize the extent to which budget problems are being addressed in both the private and public sectors by using fewer full-time professors in continuing positions (ergo, “the last professors” of Donoghue’s book title). Over half of faculty members now are part-time, and part-time positions are the norm in the rapidly growing for-profit sector. Even among full-time professors, more than 40 percent are temporary or off the tenure track. Thus, only about 30 percent of faculty members fit my colleagues’ image of a traditional professor.
Less secure positions are cheaper and more flexible, making them hard for financially challenged institutions to resist. Although the attention of continuing faculty may be limited to their own sector, the job markets of the private, public, and for-profit sectors are connected. An excess of qualified applicants relative to full-time openings, the willingness of qualified professionals to work for lower pay and benefits in temporary positions or to work part-time without benefits, and the focus of our professional organizations on issues like tenure in full-time positions rather than on fair compensation and conditions for part-time and temporary faculty all depress the compensation structure for our profession as a whole.
My colleagues might expect that public institutions’ flat salaries for the past two years (plus unpaid furloughs and loss of paid sabbaticals, travel funds, and basic support) will give institutions such as ours an advantage in hiring. But any advantage likely would be temporary. Institutions such as ours have other urgent needs, as well as the need to slow tuition increases. Because compensation at private institutions is based on success in hiring and on comparisons with the overall AAUP rank averages, as well as comparisons with like institutions, faculty compensation at all but the wealthiest private institutions eventually will be negatively affected by salary difficulties in the public sector. We will all suffer if public institutions lack sufficient funds.
What steps would I urge for my colleagues and faculty members at other private institutions? We are experts at gathering information and sharing information on complex issues. We know how to make a case. We need to make sure that the situation of higher education as a whole is understood.
We need to ask our administrations to lobby for public higher education, and we need to support the lobbying efforts of the public sector. Writing our representatives matters; state legislators count constituents who are pro and con, and they also need information to bolster positions on the public good and affordability. Treating higher education as a private good can appear to be an easy answer for voters who are aware of large state deficits unless they have heard the argument for the public good. Although getting information to voters in general is somewhat unpredictable, we have direct access to our students, most of whom are eligible to vote in a state. In general, we need to stand with public higher education rather than competing with it, and we need to help make the case that higher education is a public good.
Eugenia P. Gerdes is professor of psychology and dean emerita of the College of Arts and Sciences at Bucknell University.
In this very chaotic and difficult budget year, where funding cuts in the neighborhood of 20 percent are becoming commonplace for higher education, another troubling movement is under way: to use the funding crisis to further dilute the public responsibilities of some of the country’s leading universities.
In the name of deregulation, a number of flagship institutions are seeking to be exempted from complying with state funding and personnel regulations, as well as to be allowed to live outside of the higher education governance systems in their states. They argue that they need this autonomy to compete in the national and international markets, and that their special status is justified because of the reductions in state appropriations.
They’ve got half of this right. Relief from obsolete and ineffective state controls is appropriate for all of higher education, not just a few of the research universities, and not just because of funding reductions. The myriad rules and regulations still operating in many states were developed in another time and place, before the universities grew into multi-billion dollar enterprises with hundreds of thousands of students and tens of thousands of employees.
Yet to this day, many states still require prior approval for purchasing, dictate line-item funding in silos, and maintain fund management requirements that perpetuate bad habits such as year-end spending sprees rather than building prudent contingency reserves. There is no question that these bureaucratic mandates hurt rather than help the institutions to be accountable for efficiency and effectiveness.
But this is no time to weaken the public responsibilities of the flagship institutions, to allow them to opt out of obligations to meet state needs. It’s true that state funds are now the minority of resources in research universities, and in some cases a very small fraction. But the disinvestment of state revenues hasn’t happened to the research universities alone; it has also hurt the regional institutions and the community colleges.
More to the point, the flagship institutions got to where they are through the state investments of billions of dollars over the last century and more, giving them a funding advantage over the other publics, in total revenues, in assets and often in state funding per student, an advantage they certainly aren’t offering to give up as part of the new privatized state they envision.
While system boards work imperfectly, their core purpose is more important now than ever before: to balance institutional aspirations with broader public needs, through planning, differentiation of missions, program review, and attention to student flow across institutions. Weakening the authority of higher education system boards will only serve to advantage the already privileged. The institutions will inevitably gravitate even more away from public needs, and toward institutional self-interest: selective admissions, merit rather than need-based aid, more research, and greater academic specialization. The teaching function and service to poor and working students and to underserved geographic areas lose out in this equation. This will accelerate the declines in educational attainment our country is already experiencing.
We have to increase college access and degree production for all students. To do that the relationship between state government and public institutions needs to be reestablished on a different basis. States need to mend their budgeting systems, to put greater responsibility for fiscal management in the hands of the institutions, and to focus their own attention on how to stabilize state subsidies to meet public priorities. Institutions need to do more to improve efficiency and effectiveness, and to generate savings to build investment pools for things that won’t be coming from "new money" any more.
Both sides need to get away from the year-at-a-time focus that is killing public institutions, toward more of a multi-year investment approach that recognizes that state funds are just one of the many sources of revenue that will be needed to accomplish public purposes. And everyone needs to do more to remove barriers between institutions that keep them from serving students well, not to find ways to drive them apart.
The regulatory and funding model for higher education needs to be mended, not ended.
Jane Wellman and Charles B. Reed
Jane Wellman is executive director of the National Association of System Heads and executive director of the Delta Project on Postsecondary Costs, Productivity, and Accountability. Charles B. Reed is chancellor of the California State University System and president of NASH.
In 1971, a lawsuit was filed in Los Angeles County Superior Court that would have a profound impact on the way American schools are funded. Serrano v. Priest was the first in a wave of elementary and secondary school finance cases that would touch nearly every state in the nation and continues to this day. Existing funding regimes have been torn down, constitutional crises provoked, and billions of dollars spent in the name of achieving financial equity between school districts that serve the rich and the poor.
Nothing similar has ever happened in higher education. Desegregation lawsuits have brought some increased equity, but states have never had to defend the fairness of their higher education financing systems in court -- at least not on grounds of economic discrimination as opposed to racial bias.
It's certainly not because no inequities exist. Nationally, public four-year universities whose students arrive with an average SAT score (or ACT equivalent) greater than 1050 spend roughly $3,725, or 45 percent, more per student than universities where student scores fall below that cutoff. These numbers only include spending on instruction, academic support, and student services -- not research.
Because SAT scores track closely with family income, first-generation status, and the quality of high school preparation, they're a good proxy for how states choose to allocate resources between advantaged and disadvantaged students.
And as the table below shows, some states disparities are far above the national average. (My methodology is available here.)
Per Student Funding Gap at Institutions With Lower SAT Averages
This kind of analysis works better in some states than others. In Iowa, all three institutions are above the threshold. In Washington, D.C., the one public university is well below. (Overall, the ratio of students attending public four-year institutions where median student SAT scores above 1050 to those attending institutions at or below that threshold is about 3 to 2).
But some states have a lot of both kinds of university, and spending on students is almost uniformly higher in the institutions with higher SATs. And no state has a larger disparity than in California, the home of Serrano v. Priest, where the elite public universities spend over $10,000 more per student than the rest. That's more than the total amount of student spending at most public four-year institutions. This analysis, moreover, doesn't include the community colleges that enroll nearly half of all new freshmen every year. If it did, the disparities would be larger still, particularly in states like California where the majority of students begin in low-spending two-year institutions. Yet nobody is agitating for a higher education spending lawsuit in the Golden State.
This is partly because the legal hurdles are lower for elementary and secondary students seeking redress. While all state constitutions have an "education clause" mandating the provision of free K–12 schools, they don’t offer similar guarantees of postsecondary education. Serrano, however, was based on the California constitution's equal protection clause. States might contend that college students, unlike their K–12 counterparts, aren't bound to under-funded local schools. But it's hard to argue that disadvantaged undergraduates have equal access to high-spending public universities that limit admission to the "top" 10 percent of high school graduates -- students who are disproportionately well-off -- and routinely cite the number of applicants they reject as a measure of their success.
But the true causes of complacency run deeper. Money and opportunity are distributed this way because many people believe it is right and just to do so. Indeed, the California system has served as a model since it was developed by Clark Kerr and others 50 years ago. It reflects the ideals of meritocracy, of great universities open to all who are willing to work hard enough to merit admission. There's truth in this, of course, as first-generation college students enrolled at Berkeley, UCLA, and other University of California campuses can surely attest. People also believe that the best and brightest represent a wise place to invest resources, to ensure that the nation's future political, economic, and cultural leaders are properly educated and trained.
But in the long run, the great pyramid of American higher education, which gives more to those who arrive with more and less to those with less, represents an ethos and theory of resource allocation whose time is passing. There are few -- if any -- opportunities today for students who stop learning once they reach adulthood. Higher education is for everyone now. That's why nearly 70 percent of high school graduates are going directly to college -- a record high. If the wise men who enshrined education into state constitutions as an inalienable right in the 19th century confronted the same task today, they might well conclude that those guarantees should extend beyond the secondary years.
And everything we know from educational research -- at both the K–12 and higher education level -- suggests that academically at-risk students are more sensitive than their higher-achieving peers to differences in the quality of education they receive. Elite institutions packed to the gills with valedictorians are showering resources on students whose abundance of economic, academic, and social capital all but guarantee success, regardless of where they go to college.
Low-wealth, less-selective institutions, by contrast, serve many students with only a tenuous grasp on the ladder of opportunity. Many of those students got a lousy high school education, struggle to pay for college, and contend with multiple demands of employment and family. These are people for whom higher education is everything, the difference between one kind of life and another. And while there are surely countless professors at their colleges who are giving them a fantastic education, they do so in spite of our current financial priorities, not because of them.
These inequities are partly an artifact of history. The K–12 schools developed from the ground up, with tens of thousands of local districts serving all classes of students. The higher education sector, by contrast, was built from the top down, starting with the most well-off students and expanding to include the masses only in the last 60 years or so. Long-established institutions like Berkeley have had many decades to accumulate resources, and in some ways it's hard to blame universities for striving to be bigger, richer, and better.
But the leading institutions are failing to meet their obligation to the greater public good. Instead, the flagship universities routinely throw their weight around in statehouses, seducing politicians with promises of the next Silicon Valley or Research Triangle while gobbling up a disproportionate share of public dollars and leaving crumbs for the community colleges, regional campuses, and former normal schools that actually educate most undergraduates. Their lobbyists in Washington pursue a similar agenda at the national level.
And instead of working to make the higher education pyramid a little less steep, many less-elite institutions are trying to climb it, funneling money to marketing campaigns and enrollment management consultants in an effort to attract "better" students -- even as more and more students (who are by that way of thinking, "worse") are arriving at the front door of the academy, desperately needing to learn. These institutions are responding to the reigning system of values and institutional incentives, driven by popular college rankings and a sense that institutional quality is a function of how smart students are when they arrive, not how much they learn before they leave. As F. King Alexander, president of California State Long Beach, recently said in explaining why he wants to buck this trend, "all of the pressure flows in one way -- to do a good job with the best prepared students."
Last year, the state of New York settled a contentious, decade-long school finance lawsuit, a direct descendent of the original Serrano litigation. Despite millions spent on expensive lawyers, attorneys for the state couldn't convince New York's highest court that routinely providing thousands of dollars less per student to the mostly-poor, mostly-minority students in New York City was constitutionally permissible. The resulting billion-dollar settlement will provide smaller class sizes, better early education, and competitive teacher salaries in schools serving disadvantaged students. Advocates and civil rights groups praised the ruling as justice, delayed but certainly deserved.
In many states, students who have benefited from similar efforts at the K-12 level will enter a higher education system with a very different attitude toward economic fairness. Nobody is standing at the courthouse door waiting to petition on their behalf. At least, not yet.
Recent events in Wisconsin draw into sharp relief the dilemmas faced by systems -- particularly where land grant institutions are involved. While independence for the University of Wisconsin at Madison is now unlikely, a key fact has been overlooked. Whether the current structures in Wisconsin and elsewhere are ideal or seriously flawed, they have not been historically set in stone, and in fact reflect significant changes in mission and governance in most states.
We can say with certainty that since Colonial days, colleges and universities have been engaged in an evolutionary process. Small sectarian colleges educating clergy have become large secular universities; local teachers colleges have become regional and in some cases national universities. The land-grant institutions themselves have undergone a transformation unimagined by their founders: from colleges focused on finding cures to oak smut and better mining or agricultural techniques to international conglomerates with budgets in the billions, selective admission standards, thousands of faculty -- many funded with federal, not state, dollars raised through grants and contracts -- and branch campuses throughout the world.
It is still not clear whether the growth and development of college and university systems following the post WWII era are the result of enlightened and strong leadership or of more mundane political factors. Like the nature vs. nurture debate, the truth lies in between, and the complex organizational systems that exist today in Pennsylvania, California, Oregon, Hawaii, New Jersey, New York, Florida, Massachusetts, Wisconsin and many other states are the result of a host of factors.
They include the need to spend tax dollars in more egalitarian ways, a commitment to open access, the value of advanced degrees in the upward mobility of new middle classes, the diversification and democratization of higher education, economic efficiency and the accommodation of large numbers of students, workforce development, and the adult and continuing educational movements. Politically, these systems reflect the relative strengths of geographic interests in states (rural vs. urban), philosophical differences (egalitarian vs. elitist), and political traditions (the relative value placed on public education and the willingness to use tax dollars for it).
These factors have all played a role. Just as the canal owners and operators fought the expansion of railroads in the late 1800s, so too did a number of academic constituencies argue against the establishment of large public systems. Like other societal movements and developments, in industry, entertainment, communications, government and other nonacademic sectors, the seeds of discontent and related factors that would lead to the dissolution of systems, corporate conglomerates and the like were inevitably sown in the earliest phases of growth.
For example, the desire to emulate the "flagship" led to the clamor for and growth of professional schools and advanced degrees in branch campuses or regional campuses originally designed to promote an articulation function to the "mother" university. Today, in many systems, there are emerging powerhouses that seek greater autonomy, generating pressures which may lead to restructuring.
The sentiment, commonly heard at flagship institutions, that public institutions in other cites are taking precious resources away from the research institution, is a common refrain, almost as ubiquitous as is the disdain for the wasteful practices and regulatory interference manifested by those in the "Office of the Chancellor or President." The difficulty in unraveling reality from myth is borne from the fact there is some truth to many of the arguments marshaled in defense of one course of action or another.
In addition, many participants in these debates are not using the same definitions or databases and have different perceptions of the "mission" of a particular campus, as well as varying notions of how best to serve student populations. Moreover, large numbers of faculty members throughout state systems endeavor to recreate the kinds of institutions (replete with lighter workloads and graduate classes) where they obtained their advanced degrees. Lastly, there is the constant pressure of ranking systems, the drive to be more competitive and autonomous, to look like something or someone thought to be better, and, of course, all the while maintaining a “we are unique” mantra.
The perfect political storm in Wisconsin, with a world-class public system, exposed all the fracture points inherent in a system with 12 four-year institutions, 13 two-year colleges and a UW extension unit. A new governor, convinced by lobbyists from many parts of the state, including Madison, that a land-grant Institution does not belong in a system with institutions in Oshkosh, or Milwaukee, let alone Whitewater or Falls River, offered autonomy in what was spun as a budget proposal detaching the flagship from the system. The chancellor, along with many faculty at Madison, argued that they are capable of maintaining and sustaining independent and autonomous status, and they jumped at the opportunity when the governor proposed his plan. After all, they believe they can better serve the interests of the state as an independent institution, and the lure to be free of system regulations, raise their own funding, and determine their own future may have been a long-sought-after goal among some constituencies -- who, one suspects, did not want to be in the system in the first place.
Other universities in Wisconsin did not go along quietly, and argued that the system is greater than the sum of its parts, students are better served through statewide coordinating efforts, and symbiotic relationships are far preferable to outright and wild competition that will ensue once the system is separated. Institutions in the outlying areas of the state are not sure they will be able to compete successfully. Without attachment to the University of Wisconsin, some branch campuses might have a pretty rough road ahead; others may flourish and become real competitors for Madison.
What is unfolding in Wisconsin is not unique. Other systems have made realignments or lost institutional members, although not quite on the same scale as Wisconsin has proposed. It has happened or been proposed in Oregon, Colorado, New Mexico, Minnesota (where three systems were merged), and other locales. More important, perhaps, are the political, economic and educational conditions causing significant tension in systems. One of these is collective bargaining, where branch campuses choose to unionize and flagship faculties generally do not. The processes and dynamics of unionization cause differences in approach to compensation, workload, the management of conflict, and other important aspects of institutional life, often resulting in an exacerbation of the differences between the faculty at the flagship campus and the others where faculty choose unionization.
Another factor is the real decline in state support. Campuses such as Penn State, some in the University of California system, and others around the nation now receive less than 20 percent, and in some cases only 10 percent, of operating funds from state legislatures, while this is not typically the case for regional campuses. At the same time, these campuses, adjusting to new financial realities, are often precluded from raising tuition, even though their student populations would probably withstand higher tuitions. Conversely, many flagships have other means, through patent development, technology transfer, alumni and federal research grants, lucrative sports contracts, distance education and the like, to generate revenue.
The land-grant mission is harder to sustain in many states, resulting in sustained pressure on schools of agriculture, mining, forestry, fisheries, and extension services. For those institutions that were able to get into the game early, and negotiated profitable contracts with agribusiness and seafood industries that resulted in revenue streams, problems are not as salient. However, for institutions in states without robust agricultural and fishing environments, the pressure to serve these sectors has increased, while revenues from states legislators, despite the rhetorical support for such industries, are not forthcoming.
Then there is the collapse of the enforcement of state higher education coordination plans and other policies that purport to draw lines between institutions or constrain the growth of institutions within the state. For reasons having to do with demand, aspiration and in some cases a lessening of central authority (due to the enhanced of autonomy of select institutions), mission creep is common. A health and science complex is envisioned for a state university in the fastest-growing city in the state, the state college out west wants a law or pharmacy school, a portion of federal funds is redirected to outlying branch campuses, and professional doctorates, first in education and nursing, give way to those in biology and psychology at campuses that were once supposed to restrict graduate education to a few master’s degrees.
Last, the culture of large segments of faculty at flagship institutions is not the same as that found in newer comprehensive institutions. Hierarchical decision-making is less evident, governance and shared authority is more robust, there is greater departmental autonomy, and faculty have scholarly and consulting opportunities not available to those at the state college. Budgets, student life, risk assessment, security, the maintenance of facilities -- particularly research facilities -- recruitment of faculty and administrators from different pools, and the “cosmopolitan” versus “local” orientation of employees all contribute to very different campus cultures, which are sometimes held together very tenuously and need only an immediate crisis to fracture.
Considering this history doesn’t mean that autonomy is the best path forward for Madison. But can it really be surprising that educators there want a change? Alternatively, the financial pressures inherent in the new normal may lead some states to impose greater system control in the interest of economies of scale, eliminating duplication. Finally, system fragmentation, if not dissolution, may result from the encouragement of entrepreneurial schools with greater freedom to offer market attractive programs raising tuition revenues to replace state shortfalls.
Not long ago it was inconceivable that US Steel, Ma Bell or General Motors would ever break up. Faced with growing international competition, a changing legal environment, fewer tax dollars, a decline in real wealth, expensive union contracts, redundancy in operational units, and the loss of confidence by the American public, these industrial giants inevitably came undone. Will the same occur with large state systems?
Daniel J. Julius
Daniel J. Julius is vice president for academic affairs for the University of Alaska System.