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,
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
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. …