Public Colleges Forgetting the Public?
By Eric Kelderman, Staff Writer
"Rather than focusing on providing a high-quality education to an ever-expanding share of the population, many academic leaders are chasing revenues, rankings and prestige," wrote Jamie Scurry, research associate at the Futures Project at Brown University. Scurry is co-author of the project's report released Feb. 16 entitled, "Correcting the Course: How We Can Restore the Ideals of Public Higher Education in a Market-Driven Era."
Despite stagnant state budgets, many public colleges and universities are spending more money on technology and star faculty to attract the best students and private funding for research, the study found. To pay for the increasing costs, they are raising tuition at a record pace and cutting scholarships for middle- and low-income students, according to the Futures Project, a nonprofit initiative founded in 1999 to research trends in higher education. The project has received funding from the Pew Charitable Trusts, which also funds Stateline.org.
"As a result, access to and success in higher education may become limited to those who can pay the cost of tuition and come with the advantages of preparedness and savvy, college-educated parents who can help navigate the process," the report states.
The study criticizes a trend by public colleges in states such as Colorado, Oklahoma and Texas to operate more like private institutions, with greater authority to set tuition and less state oversight of their operations.
The latest state to take action is Virginia, where the General Assembly recently passed legislation that would give that state's 16 public colleges more freedom to raise tuition in return for less or no state money. The bill also would give the universities greater freedom from state rules on purchasing, construction and employment. Competing versions of the bill have passed both the Senate and House of Delegates and will have to be reconciled by a conference committee before heading to Gov. Mark Warner (D).
Warner wants to be the first governor to sign an agreement giving the colleges greater flexibility, said his spokeswoman, Ellen Qualls. But he also wants to make sure that colleges preserve access and affordability, especially for in-state students, she said. The governor's higher education goals, laid out in 2003, include increasing the number of college degrees by 10,000 each year until 2010 and increasing grants for research and development to $1 billion annually.
But allowing public colleges to operate more like private institutions is not the whole answer, argues Futures Project director Lara K. Couturier. Universities have to do more to keep costs in line and prove to the public and lawmakers that they deserve greater levels of state support, she said. They not only have to ensure access to their classrooms, they also have to help students succeed and graduate, she said.