Public Colleges Must Keep Thriving

June 15, 2010 | CUNY Matters Columns

You’ve seen the headlines about California this year. The University of California system saw its state support reduced by nearly 20 percent in 2009. Since 1990, state funding per-student for education at UC has dropped from 78 percent of the total cost of education to 58 percent.

But California is not an isolated case. Without the contributions that have come from the federal stimulus package, the total state support for public higher education across the country would have dropped 3.5 percent this year (2009-2010) and 6.8 percent over the last two years.

Of course, there is variation among states. Some, including small-population states like Montana and North Dakota, but also larger states like Texas, showed increases. But 11 states had significant one-year declines of more than five percent — even when we include the federal stimulus funds. These include California, Michigan, Ohio, Washington and Virginia — all home to celebrated public research universities. At UC Berkeley alone, research has led to almost 2,000 inventions, and its alumni have founded 250 companies. The University of Michigan has licensed close to 50 startup companies in just the last five years.

As James Duderstadt, the former president of the University of Michigan, has said about state funding, public universities have gone from being “state-supported” to being “state-assisted,” then “state-related,” and now “state-located.” I would suggest that we are sometimes “state-assaulted.”

Complicating the decline in state support are two factors: One is unprecedented enrollment growth, largely spurred by the country’s recession; and the other is a growing need to prepare more students to a higher skill level.

The recession is largely the cause of the most recent growth. But CUNY’s decadelong increases are the result of our longterm focus on raising academic standards and burnishing our academic reputation. With that comes more students, and better- prepared students, who are retained in higher numbers.

At the same time, I hope students across the country are recognizing that they live in a world in which a college education is more important than ever. We’ve all talked about the country’s evolution from a manufacturing economy to a knowledge economy, one in which advanced skills are increasingly necessary. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has pointed out that 30 of the fastest-growing fields require a minimum of a bachelor’s degree. In this economic environment, going to college cannot be a privilege for the fortunate few. We need more highly skilled graduates.

So, our situation is clear: Public higher education is asked to do more with less. As University of California President Mark Yudof and I — and so many others — continue to say, we cannot simply fill in revenue gaps with tuition. Keeping college accessible is critical to public higher education’s core mission. The Morrill Act of 1862, which provided land to states for colleges, codified the importance of accessible public higher education for Americans. It enabled the development of the University of California, Pennsylvania State University, The Ohio State University, the University of Wisconsin, and so many other stellar public institutions. That is a tradition we cannot abandon.

Public higher education simply can’t compromise on access or on academic quality. So we must be creative and entrepreneurial. Public institutions must take responsibility for ever-escalating and legitimately incurred costs; they cannot ask students and government to foot the bill. Whether through reorganization, an expansion of revenue sources, or improved efficiency and productivity generated by sometimes difficult and unpopular decisions, state universities must step up to the plate. We need to emulate some of the approaches long embodied by private institutions: building endowments, finding entrepreneurial opportunities, monetizing the use of physical assets.

In my view, the decline of support for public higher education, and the stagnation that results from neglect, is nothing less than a national security crisis. Our economic and social well-being, and our scientific and technological leadership, rely on our country’s universities.

Our future will be defined by the public investment we make in higher education and, at the same time, by our institutional ability to innovate and stay nimble. This is a critical moment for public higher education, one that requires new approaches. We simply must not squander the truly remarkable power and potential at our public universities.

This column is adapted from the May 2010 issue of National Crosstalk, a publication of the National Center for Public Policy in Higher Education. Visit highereducation.org for the complete report.