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the failure of *public* higher education

You should definitely read olderwoman’s lengthy discussion of the University of Wisconsin at the Scatterplot blog. The issue is separating out Madison as an independent “public authority,” which, if I understand correctly, gives it this sort of independent status. There is one passage in o.w.’s post that I want to discuss at length:

One core value question is whether you support the idea of an elite research institution or not. Should there be major public research institutions at all? And if so, what does it take to maintain them? Can an elite research university survive with an egalitarian ethos in the face of competition from the unapologetic elitist private institutions?

Here’s my response. Rather than argue at the level of values, let’s look at the historical record. First, public research institutions have done remarkably well in the competition. The leading flagships – Berkeley, Ann Arbor, Michigan, etc. – have research records comparable to elite privates. In some fields, like engineering, they surpass nearly all private institutions (except maybe MIT or Cal Tech). Second, the public research school has done a good job educating lots of people, myself included. They’ve done at reasonable price (until recently) and with a world class faculty.

So why did I title this post “the failure of public higher education?” Well, the empirical record shows that the public isn’t terribly interested in this record. Sure, in polls, people may talk about the importance of education, but in state budgets, the message is clear. Higher education is second fiddle.

This is not a case of a few recent Republican legislatures targeting liberal egg heads for budget cuts. Rather, there has been a 40 year decline in the relative contribution by state legislatures to public university budgets. After the boom in public colleges in the 1960s, there began a slow whittling away of public support as legislatures gave more and more money to other budget items such as K-12 education, police, prisons, and public sector employee compensation. These may, or may not, be defensible choices, but the bottom line is the same – reduced support for public universities.

The consequence is a structural transformation of the leading public universities. As I wrote a few weeks ago, the leading state schools aren’t really “state” schools. They are more like schools that get an annual state grant. They’ve succeeded in teaching and research, but they’ve failed in maintaining their relationship to the state.

Let me finish with a more constructive comment. o.w. wrote that some people focused on tuition in a world without public research institutions. Perhaps a “free” Wisconsin would charge Harvard rates. I think there is a middle way. The state has the power to charter schools, give them grants, and license their brand name (e.g., the University of State X). In exchange for adopting a quasi-private stance and retaining these privileges, state universities would be required to fund raise and establish an endowment that is only for in-state students. The endowment would be earmarked for low income in-state students and the university would be required to admit a certain proportion of in state students. That way, the state university could be free from state regulations while maintaining its mission to serve the local population.

Written by fabiorojas

May 4, 2011 at 12:03 am

Posted in education, fabio

4 Responses

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  1. Just to clarify, the reason for the “40 year decline in the relative contribution by state legislatures to public university budgets” is that total expenditures have increases far faster than the overall growth in the economy. In terms of the public’s willingness to pay taxes to subsidize higher education, I’m not sure if we’ve seen a decline… perhaps only an increase not commensurate with the increase in individuals’ willingness to personally pay for more education.

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    Michael Bishop

    May 4, 2011 at 2:37 pm

  2. This is the best I could find with a quick google… 2010-2011 saw a 0.7% drop in spending, but look at the 2006-2011 graph… average growth in spending of 12.5%

    http://chronicle.com/article/Interactive-Map-State-Support/126032/

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    Michael Bishop

    May 4, 2011 at 2:42 pm

  3. michael,

    there’s an interesting contrast with health care, which has similarly been the victim of Baumol’s disease but has seen increasing state and federal subsidies over time in the form of Medicare, Medicaid, public sector benefits packages, and employer-provided tax deductibility.

    it’s also worth noting rapid increases in primary and secondary education spending. (per pupil spending has roughly doubled over the last few generations). this is also mostly because of Baumol’s disease (though political institutions, increasing opportunities in other sectors for skilled women, and the rise of special education also matter) but unlike higher ed there is no tuition component so any expenditure increases are by nature public (at least in the absence of voucher-ization). i find it quite plausible that legislators and voters consider “education” to be a single category and thus primary/secondary spending increases to keep pace with rising expenditures have crowded out spending increases to keep pace with rising higher ed expenditures.

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    gabrielrossman

    May 4, 2011 at 5:08 pm

  4. […] the failure of *public* higher education "Well, the empirical record shows that the public isn’t terribly interested in this record. Sure, in polls, people may talk about the importance of education, but in state budgets, the message is clear. Higher education is second fiddle." — Exactly. Not good news. (tags: usa:higher_ed academia) Filed under: Linkage   |  Leave a Comment LikeBe the first to like this post. […]

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