Public Colleges Face Rising Demand, Reduced Support

 
No one would mistake the two, office-park-like buildings that house the Universities at Shady Grove in Rockville, Md., for the stately, 1,250-acre flagship campus of the University of Maryland 20 miles down the road in College Park. But John Arcilla, a 20-year-old accounting major, is confident that the diploma he earns on the satellite campus will carry the same weight.

Leaders of Maryland's public universities say that confidence is not misplaced, for the undergraduate and graduate courses offered at the satellite are taught by the same professors who teach at seven other Maryland universities.

Tuition is $1,200 lower than the $7,410 a year charged on the College Park campus, and Arcilla, whose family emigrated five years ago from the Philippines, has both a scholarship and a paid internship at Medimmune, a nearby biotechnology firm.

Arcilla is the beneficiary of a decision Maryland made in 1992 to expand opportunity with the satellite campus. What started as a small number of evening classes now has grown to more than 30 degree programs with day and evening classes in fields from education to computers to nursing to bioscience. College Park's Robert H. Smith School of Business offers both bachelor's and MBA degrees there.

A majority of the students at Shady Grove are Asian, African-American or Hispanic and two-thirds are women. Most are pursuing degrees while holding full-time jobs, and most, like Arcilla, took their first two years of credits at Montgomery College, one of the nation's premiere community colleges.

They are fortunate to have these alternative pathways, for the University of Maryland system, like many public colleges and universities, is facing increased demand in an era of constricted resources.

Competition for seats in public university classrooms, skyrocketing tuition and shrinking state support threaten to shut out hundreds of thousands of students nationally at a time when the demand for advanced education is increasing.

Many public universities, frustrated at trying to do more with less, are pushing for greater fiscal autonomy, including the ability to raise tuition and set their own budget priorities. Some even are willing to settle for less state support.

Politicians and policy-makers leaders, however, are wary of striking that bargain, fearing that privatizing public universities will create a two-tiered educational system.And Reyes's experience could become the norm, as states, colleges and students look for new ways to solve a looming crisis in college affordability and access.

The National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, a nonprofit group that receives money from The Pew Charitable Trusts, recently reported that "for most American families college is less affordable now than it was a decade ago." Despite improvements in secondary education, "these gains have not translated into higher rates of enrollment in higher education," it said. The center estimated that 250,000 prospective students were shut out of colleges in 2003 because of rising tuition or cutbacks in admissions and course offerings.

Demand for higher education is increasing well beyond what states are willing or able to pay for, said Aims C. McGuinness, a researcher at the nonprofit National Center for Higher Education Management Systems.

This comes at a time of sharply escalating public tuitions. Nationally, in-state tuition at public four-year colleges rose 10.5 percent to an average of $5,132 for 2004-2005, after a 14 percent increase in 2003-2004 and a 9 percent jump in 2002-2003, according to the College Board, the nonprofit association that administers the SAT exam and Advanced Placement high school tests. With room and board, the average cost of a year at a public four-year college now is $11,354. This was the third year in a row that private college tuition rose at a lower rate. However, private colleges still charge almost four times as much: $20,082 for tuition alone, and $27,516 with room and board.

State appropriations for higher education rose only 2.5 percent in 2004, after a 4.5 percent cut in 2003 and a 1 percent cut in 2002. While college aid is growing, the bulk of financial help for students is now in loans, rather than grants. And with shrinking state resources and a finite number of classroom seats, colleges are becoming more selective about whom they accept.

Applications to the University System of Maryland, which has sustained state budget cuts of more than 11 percent over two years, increased more than 10,000 over the past decade, but acceptances went up by only half that number, according to the Maryland Higher Education Commission. And the average SAT score of entering freshmen at University of Maryland, College Park, has increased shot up from 1,081 -- slightly above average -- to a lofty 1,263.

The elite University of California campuses raised their enrollment standards, reducing the number of eligible high school students by more than 6,000 starting in fall 2005.

And to limit the state's costs, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger proposed to redirect 4,200 incoming freshman from the California State University system to community colleges for two years. Schwarzenegger eventually withdrew his proposal, and instead forged a compact with both the UC and CSU systems for increased state funding in return for regular tuition increases and limited enrollments.

But a growing number of students are making their own decisions to start, and sometimes end, their higher education in community colleges, said Steve Simon, a spokesman for Montgomery College in Rockville, Md.

The profile of the typical community college student has changed from the mid-career adult who wants to change fields and takes classes part-time, to the full-time student straight from high school who is aiming for a bachelor's degree, Simon said. Community colleges have suffered the same budget cuts as four-year institutions and also are struggling to keep up with demand for more classes.

Some states and their public colleges and universities are responding to the challenges with radical proposals to cut traditional ties, essentially privatizing the institutions and allowing them to raise tuitions at will.

"Traditional colleges and universities are competing with each other and with a host of new providers of post-secondary education, such as for-profit, online and corporate institutions, in a battle for tuition, public and private revenues, and prestige," said Lara K. Couturier, associate director of the Futures Project at Brown University. This competition is pushing public higher education "away from its commitment to serving public needs."

In 2004, Colorado made the biggest change to its higher education system by enacting a voucher program that gives state money directly to students instead of the universities. In return, Colorado's state's public universities, which receive less than 10 percent of their funding from the state, were granted more power to raise tuition.

Colorado's situation was unique because of a cap in that state's Constitution that had limited both state funds for higher education and tuition hikes, Couturier said. "The concern now is that other states will adopt this legislation without having the necessary public debate about the effect of vouchers in public higher education," she said.

Virginia's three leading universities, the University of Virginia, Virginia Tech and the College of William and Mary, launched a campaign seeking "charter status" from the state, under which they would trade less state money for control of their tuition and budgets. They made little headway in Richmond, and the Legislature is unlikely to act on the proposal in 2005, said James W. Dyke Jr., an education advisor to Gov. Mark Warner (D). The University of Virginia gets just 8 percent of its $1.6 billion operating budget from the state, down from 28 percent in the 1980s.

Freeing those universities from state oversight, and the resulting tuition increases, might be good for those three universities but also would shut the doors to most low-income students, warned David Breneman, dean of the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia.

And an offer by Gov. Mark Sanford (R) to allow South Carolina's 33 state-supported colleges and universities to sever ties with the state and its money was brushed off by those institutions.

Proposals also were raised and dropped in Oregon, Washington and Wisconsin last year to give public colleges and universities more control over tuition in return for less state money and regulation.

Widespread privatization of public colleges and universities probably is not going to occur, said McGuinness of the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems. But

But in the long run, the growing demand for higher education could redefine the traditional college experience as many know it: a four- or five-year journey through a liberal arts curriculum, emphasizing loyalty to the institution and a vaunted bachelor's degree.

One possibility is that more students will take college-level courses in high school, reducing a student's time on campus and costs for a degree, said Hilary Pennington, who runs Jobs for the Future, a research and advocacy group.

In Virginia, for example, Gov. Warner has convinced 62 of the state's public and private colleges to accept up to 13 hours of college credit for advanced classes taken in high school. Warner is also pushing the idea in his role as chairman of the National Governors Association.

What also could emerge is a sprawling, decentralized education system that caters to the market's demand for better-trained employees and emphasizes career skills over the traditional liberal arts, Pennington said.

That is the direction taken by the Universities at Shady Grove in Maryland. The average age of its students is 28, and most are juggling classes with a full-time job.

William E. Kirwan, chancellor of the University System of Maryland, which has 120,000 students enrolled at its 11 degree-granting institutions, has called Shady Grove a model for the future and "a cost-efficient, high-quality way to extend the reach of the institution." Maryland already has established a second satellite campus and has extensive articulation arrangements between its universities and community colleges. It also offers online courses through the University of Maryland University College.

Kirwan told leaders of the College Board last winter that with these alternatives, "we anticipate that we can accommodate approximately two-thirds of the projected enrollment growth ... at a small fraction of the cost it would take to educate these students at a traditional campus."

Kirwan exhorted higher education leaders and policy-makers to find ways to contain rising costs and to renew the national commitment to need-based financial aid. The alternative, he warned, is to imagine "an America where the ladder of opportunity ... is not available to thousands of qualified young people from the lower end of the economic spectrum."

The preceding article was excerpted from Stateline.org's "State of the States 2005" report, which was published this month. For your free copy of this annual 60-page reference book, send your name, mailing address and occupation to editor@stateline.org.
 
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