Higher Ed: Dangers of an Unplanned Future: This Education Expert Believes We Need to Engage in a National Dialogue to Discuss Funding, Pricing, Governance and Society's Expectations for Public Colleges and Universities

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There is cause for concern about the future of public higher education. The unease is driven in part by the recent cuts in state funding of most public universities and by the harsh reality that today's strains are merely a continuation of a three decades-long trend driven by systemic tensions in state budgets.

The apparent transformation of public higher education is occurring piecemeal, campus by campus, state by state, absent any overarching design, significant national debate, or studied assessment of the broader implications. As Penn State University President Graham Spanier commented recently: "The privatization of public higher education is not related to any political party, any governor, or any legislative leader. But it is happening, nonetheless."

The precise circumstances vary from campus to campus, but the overall picture is disturbingly consistent. For the University of Michigan, the decline in state dollars as a percentage of the total budget went from roughly one-third of the total some 20 years ago to 18 percent now. The picture for the University of Illinois shows a comparable decline in state support, from 47 percent of the total two decades ago to 25 percent today. At the University of Colorado, state funding has dropped below 10 percent.

Compounding the pressures from Medicaid, corrections and other sectors of the state budget, states have yielded to the temptation in good years to create new and expanded obligations and to enact tax cuts. As state support for public institutions has been squeezed, tuition and other charges have escalated as campuses have attempted to replace lost state revenue. Hikes in tuition and fees have outpaced inflation, growth in personal income, and virtually every available benchmark.

As tuition and other college costs have grown, states and institutions have increased need-based financial aid, though such efforts too often have proved to be inadequate. In the face of an economic downturn, even state funding for need-based aid is not immune to cuts.


America is not likely to return to an earlier, simpler vision of the public university. It is time to confront reality and explore new options and approaches that will preserve the "public essence" of the public university while empowering these institutions to be more responsive to changed circumstances.

To address this challenge, we must confront at least four central issues.

1. The social contract--the public essence--that binds public universities, the states and society must be refined. At the time of the passage of the 1862 Morrill Act, the broad outlines of the social contract were fairly clear: Create a broader curriculum aligned with the changing needs of the new industrial society; expand access for the middle class; and apply knowledge to the broader welfare of the society.

Throughout the 20th century, the public university mission focused on teaching and on discovering and sharing knowledge. After World War II, however, the environment began to shift. As recently as 1960, the University of Illinois, like most other public universities, was a near-open-admissions institution. And while not free, it was relatively inexpensive.

Today, the university where I work is far from free, and admission is highly competitive. Sons and daughters of farmers and factory workers can still be found, but so too can the high-achieving children of surgeons and stockbrokers. The question that needs asking in Illinois and every state is this: What does the public want and require from public universities and colleges? In other words, what are the central interests of the state and the public, and what values underpin them?

In today's world, open and affordable access to high-quality education is crucial in every state. Research, innovation and the capacity to tackle the core challenges confronting society are no less important, as most state policymakers have known for years. …