State Policy and the Public Research University: A Case Study of Manifest and Latent Intentions

By Frost, Susan H.; Hearn, James C. et al. | Journal of Higher Education, July-August 1997 | Go to article overview

State Policy and the Public Research University: A Case Study of Manifest and Latent Intentions


Frost, Susan H., Hearn, James C., Marine, Ginger M., Journal of Higher Education


The 1990s are unquestionably bringing to light a growing array of uncertainties regarding the future of higher education. Recent survey data suggest that the support of the general public and political leaders for higher education is more fragile than educators would wish (Harvey & Immerwahr, 1995; Wadsworth, 1995). A rising number of exposes of problems in higher education have been published, and the volume of public criticism of some university practices has clearly increased (Prewitt, 1993). Uncertainties may be particularly acute in institutions drawing heavily on taxpayer funds. There, rising demands for public accountability may bring conflict with deeply held academic values and threaten the ambitious educational, scientific, and social missions of some institutions (Cole, 1993; Bok, 1990, 1992).(1)

In the public postsecondary sector, strains in institutions' social and political support are exacerbated by state governments' ongoing fiscal difficulties. Those difficulties have hit universities especially hard: spending on postsecondary education has taken the worst hit of all state spending categories in recent years (Gold, 1995). Economist and former college president David Breneman has noted in a recent editorial essay (1995, p. B2), "After four decades of largely unbroken growth in resources and enrollment, higher education is several years into a new era which severely challenges those whose careers have been built on the assumption of unending prosperity." In the face of this difficult financing climate, criticism has come from within as well as outside the public postsecondary sector. University of California system provost Walter Massey noted in 1994 that many public research universities are endangering their previously unquestioned popular support by failing to be accountable stewards of public funds. As John Brandl, a policy researcher, University of Minnesota professor, and veteran state legislator in Minnesota, has argued, "The automatic deference that society and politicians used to have toward public universities has eroded" (Healy, 1996, p. A19).

This article focuses on one increasingly prominent policy alternative for dealing with the current political and financial uncertainties: curtailing the enrollment of out-of-state students in public colleges and universities. From a purely fiscal perspective, directly limiting out-of-state enrollments, or at least imposing substantially higher prices for out-of-state students' attendance, can make sense, especially for states facing both fiscal and enrollment pressures. Breneman (1995) has suggested that those states need to "think the unthinkable. . . . [S]weeping changes must be considered, because the combination of growing demand and limited state resources will not permit painless solutions" (p. B2). Of course, higher tuition levels for out-of-state students are a longstanding feature of state postsecondary policy around the United States, and outright limits on such enrollment have been in place for years in several states with nationally prestigious "flagship" institutions (e.g., Michigan). In recent years, however, such policies have become more prevalent around the country. More states have adopted out-of-state enrollment limitations, and existing policies have been tightened.(2)

The main argument of those favoring such policies has been that a state's public universities should strongly emphasize serving the needs of state citizens rather than the needs of those from other states. In states with high enrollment demands and limited fiscal ability to expand available student spaces the argument can be especially appealing. Without strict limits on enrollment by out-of-state students, some state policymakers argue, highly qualified out-of-state students will increasingly consume classroom capacity and thereby deny spaces for taxpaying state residents and their children. From the perspective of many public policymakers, the logic is clear and convincing: quality higher education is a valuable state resource that must be protected for the citizenry largely responsible for its funding, especially in today's environment of fiscal constraint. …

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