Public Universities Have Forgotten Their Mission

As public education becomes less public, what new economic model will emerge?
July 2015
Politics played a role in UNC-system President Tom Ross' resignation. (Flickr/ Tommayncz)
Peter Harkness
By Peter Harkness  |  Founder, Publisher Emeritus

I was stunned and saddened to learn six months ago or so that someone I deeply respect had in effect been forced from public office even though everyone seemed to agree that he was doing an outstanding job.

Tom Ross received one of Governing’s first Public Official of the Year awards in 1994, for work he had done on sentencing reform as a superior court judge in North Carolina. He went on in 2010 to become president of the state’s 17-campus university system, earning a reputation as an effective leader during some perilous times.

That reputation turned out not to matter. Even though Ross never entered politics, he had served as executive director of the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation, which was known for underwriting progressive causes. In the current Tea Party political climate in North Carolina, that evidently was enough to push him aside.

My previous column focused on the chaos evident in the nation’s K-12 system. After something like two centuries, we still don’t have answers to the basic question of why, despite spending more per student than other economically developed countries, our results are less than mediocre. We are seeing sparks of innovation, but we don’t seem to know how to light the fire.

Much the same can now be said of higher education. The U.S. played a key role in establishing a modern higher education system throughout the developed world, over time marrying the British educational college with the German research institute, creating the largest network of colleges and universities on the globe. It was dramatically expanded in 1944 when Congress enacted the GI Bill, opening the system up to millions in the middle class.

But the American higher education model now faces much the same dilemma as our secondary system. Like K-12, higher ed is slipping in international comparisons. Especially since the onset of the Great Recession, state aid has been declining as costs are rising, resulting in both expanded student debt and political acrimony.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) reports that from fiscal 2003 to fiscal 2012, state funding for public colleges and universities declined from $80 billion to $71 billion -- or 12 percent -- even as enrollments shot up by 20 percent. Median state funding per student declined 24 percent -- from $6,211 in fiscal 2003 to $4,695 in fiscal 2012, according to the GAO.

The resulting deficit fell heavily on students and their families, as the ratio of net tuition to annual income increased about one and a half times during that same period of 2003 to 2012. In the last two years of that period, the Census reported a precipitous drop of 930,000 in college enrollment.

Of course, this decline in state support was heavily influenced by the poor economy, but longer-range studies tracking public higher education reveal that state funding has been falling for the past 35 to 40 years, while inflation-adjusted tuition and fees have increased by 247 percent at state flagship universities during the same period.

But funding is only a part of the story. Other questions involve effectiveness and overall value: what students are getting and giving for those increased tuitions; whether professors are more interested in their research than in their students; why A-level grades have almost tripled in frequency in the past 50 years; and whether students increasingly view college as a means to ensure financial success rather than an opportunity to seek greater meaning or learn to think critically.

The underlying question is how the roles of various players -- the federal and state governments, the universities and students themselves -- will change as public education becomes less public. What new economic model will emerge? How will these public-private institutions be governed?

The debate among academics and administrators over all these questions can turn surprisingly nasty. And as the politicians chime in, it is likely to get even uglier. Tom Ross in North Carolina will not be the only victim.

As with K-12, some recent sparks of innovation are apparent. A number of universities have been offering online courses to broad audiences, but now Arizona State University is pioneering a new mixture of in-person and online education, with close monitoring of its students using an electronic dashboard to measure their progress, with substantial savings.

Roger Perry, the retired president of Champlain College in Vermont, is enthusiastic about a growing movement to, in his words, “blend class time, online and an onsite, project-based approach” where students are actually involved in situations applicable to the present workplace “rather than some case study.” He points as an example to College for America, sponsored by Southern New Hampshire University, which now admits its students through their employers and gives degrees based on “actual learning” rather than semesters completed. Enrollment is growing fast and the concept of a “competency-based education model” is spreading.

It is this kind of practical, efficient and inexpensive alternative that reformers like Perry point to as a model for the future. But defenders of the old system cringe, arguing that higher education should be about much more than training for the workforce or operating efficiency. Tom Ross was one of those defenders. He complained earlier this year that American higher education had become “too focused on metrics, return on investment and job preparation.” His is a voice that the education establishment can’t afford to ignore in the debate that has now begun.

Peter Harkness
Peter Harkness | Founder, Publisher Emeritus |