THE 1990s promise to be a time of wrenching transition for American colleges and universities. A period of nonstop growth that has lasted for a century is finally grinding to a halt. With budgets declining and criticism rising, many universities - especially those in the vast middle-ground of higher education - find they may have to make sweeping changes to stay in business into the 21st century.
Some early signs of the turmoil that is forcing change: The University of Minnesota closed its Waseca campus in June to save money. The University of California has been criticized by the Legislature for extravagent spending. The University of Massachusetts at Amherst is torn by racial strife.
Now a heated debate has started over the future of US higher education - a future that will be affected primarily by three forces: the demands of a wider cross section of the population for access to higher education; soaring costs and tuition, which limit access; and the demands of business for skilled workers, which puts a premium on educational excellence.
"We're asking everything from who ought to be taught, to what ought to be taught, to how they ought to be taught, to how we ought to pay for it. All that is up for grabs now," says Arthur Levine, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education in Cambridge, Mass.
The only thing virtually all sides in the debate agree on is that American colleges and universities today are redefining their missions, much as they did a century ago.
Until the late 19th century, colleges were small institutions that provided a classical education for the well-to-do. Around the turn of the century, reformers succeeded in refocusing colleges' curricula in more practical directions. Thus was born the modern research university, which combined a host of disparate missions: undergraduate and graduate schooling, basic and applied research, professional education, and service to community.
But small, liberal-arts colleges, which stress undergraduate education above all else, didn't disappear. They continued to grow and flourish alongside the new "multiversities." The past 100 years has seen almost unbroken growth in virtually every sector of American higher education.
That growth has culminated in a higher-education system widely acknowledged as the world's finest - and by far the largest. Today, the US has 3,559 colleges and universities, with a combined annual budget of $140 billion, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education. Together, the Chronicle reports, these institutions have provided some education to 45.2 percent of the country's adult population.
But will today's structure stand as higher education's crowning achievement or merely serve as another chapter in a unbroken story of progress? The outlook is uncertain.
University budgets across the country are being hard hit as private donors give less and as government support at all levels declines. State and local governments used to provide 35 percent of higher-education funding, while the federal government chipped in another 20 percent. Today, according to the Pew Higher Education Research Program in Philadelphia, those figures have dropped to 30 percent and 15 percent, respectively.
Why the declining level of support? One big factor has been the end of the cold war, which has resulted in sharp cutbacks in federal research funding. Another major force has been budget crunches in many states. In California, for example, the University of California system saw its budget cut by 10.5 percent this year; the California State College system took an 8.8 percent cut.
The common factor linking declining public and private support for higher education is the recession. "The generally depressing state of the economy is like a big, wet blanket on institutions," says David Breneman, a former president of Kalamazoo College in Michigan who now teaches at Harvard University. …