Is public higher education losing the public?

The popular discourse today about higher education is largely negative—college costs too much, students learn too little, jobs are too scarce for the graduates who rack up debt to earn back their investment, and universities change at a pace that can only be measured by geologists…glacial.  On the other hand, technology has enabled more non-traditional students to access a higher education than ever before and more students are graduating with certificates and degrees than at any point in human history.  As Dickens once remarked, it is the best of times and the worst of times. 

Over the course of nearly 150 interviews with state legislators, policy makers, college presidents, and members of Congress on both sides of the aisle, it became clear to me that public education is facing a crisis. Higher education is not at the zenith of its popularity and changes in political leadership are reshaping priorities, with fewer legislators focused on higher education.  

{mosads}Historically, our nation believed that having an educated citizenry was imperative for a healthy democracy and so higher education was supported at very high levels.  Over time, however, it has come to be seen as a benefit to the individual more so than a public good—particularly in an era of limited resources and competing priorities.  

Ironically, some of the most significant expansion and funding for higher education has come during periods of national crisis, often more severe than the recent “Great Recession.” Among these are the Morrill Act, passed one month after 25,000 men died at the Battle of Shiloh during the Civil War, and the massive federal and state investments following World War II.  Higher education was used to expand opportunity and to strengthen areas of national interest when resources were limited. 

While most policy makers believe that universities are critically important, serve important public purposes of great value to the nation, and are tremendous assets in which there is universal pride, recent history has shown that public universities should not expect new funding anytime soon. For this reason, public institutions need to evolve, think boldly and build new partnerships in order to assure a more sustainable future. 

The Hybrid University 

Much of my research focuses on the new public-private model in higher education that breaks the mold of the old notions of public or private.  The connections between industry, education, and government are at the core of higher education today—and for the future—and the partnership will have to be about more than just money. 

In my research, I found many examples of institutions that embody the new public-private model, which requires five key elements: increased private support in the form of philanthropy and alternative business revenues; increased efficiency and cost reduction; stable, even if diminished, funding from the state; sufficient autonomy to achieve these elements; and a continued public mission that emphasizes achieving state goals such as access, economic development, and increased degree attainment. 

These five elements are essential to the future for public higher education and will require each stakeholder—state and federal governments (public support and autonomy); students (higher tuition, particularly for those who can afford to pay); faculty and staff (increased efficiency and productivity); and alumni, corporations, and foundations (philanthropy)—to do more or change in meaningful ways. In other words, everyone has to do their part. 

Democracy Depends on our Colleges 

Since the earliest days of our republic, education has been considered synonymous with democracy, and we have been a people focused on the larger public good. We will often disagree about the best way to use public dollars and what defines the public good, but a vigorous dialogue about the public purposes of higher education can help build consensus and strengthen the bonds among institutional leaders, state and federal leaders, and the public at large. 

The challenges facing public colleges and universities are complex, but all stakeholders must work together to achieve the public-private partnership—where both the aspirations of the institution and its service to the public good can shine. 

Lambert is the vice president for University Advancement at William & Mary where he also teaches higher education finance and public policy.  He is the author of Privatization and the Public Good: Public Universities in the Balance (Harvard Education Press, 2014).  


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