Writing in the New York Times last month, Laura Pappano offered a thoughtful analysis of the efforts by public colleges - principally public flagship universities - to find new sources of revenue, diversify their student bodies, and expand their national reputations. It's an interesting trend that should be watched closely.
America's colleges and universities have different funding sources. Historically, public systems relied most heavily upon direct state support. Drawing upon the research of Thomas Mortenson, senior scholar at the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education, Ms. Pappano notes: "Nearly thirty years ago, legislative appropriations provided 59 percent of core revenues at public four-year colleges. In 2013, the latest year available, states covered 27 percent on average." Absent historic state support, America's public colleges and universities have turned increasingly to alternative funding sources, tuition, fees, room, board, additional auxiliary enterprises, public private partnerships, endowment drawdown, and debt.
Cross-Border Recruitment Brings Revenue
As the article suggests, one approach is to think big and move recruitment goals beyond the state's borders. Ms. Pappano profiled a number of public colleges and universities, including the University of Alabama, University of South Carolina, Miami University of Ohio, Rutgers University, Arizona State University, and the College of William and Mary, to demonstrate how these institutions used various recruiting strategies to expand their base of out-of-state students. The results speak for themselves. From 2010-2015, freshman applications at Arizona State rose 42%, at the University of South Carolina by 39%, and at Miami University of Ohio by 62%.
On the surface, the tactic seems like a good way to balance a university's budget and replace a dwindling source of revenue from the state. And in fairness, public colleges and universities should not be blamed for seeking such a solution. In fact, it precisely mirrors the tactics used by private colleges and universities with regional and national reputations. It is an entrepreneurial and creative approach. Indeed, for the profiled institutions, expanded recruitment appears to be paying a handsome dividend.
We can set aside, for example, some of the approaches taken by flagship public universities to recruit out-of-state like using merit awards to crack into ZIP codes that in later years might produce additional students, many of these full pay. It's not so much the tactic but the policy that comes into question. The policy reflects the new realities that public universities now face.
Regional Public Universities Have Fewer Options
First, there is a growing disconnect between flagship publics and the regional public sector institutions. The latter do not have the reputation, alumni base, facilities, breadth of programs, personnel, and resources to mimic the public flagship's admission recruiting beyond state boundaries.
In an era of stagnant or declining enrollment of traditional age students, the failure to make investments in the rest of the public system will only exacerbate the chasm between the public flagship research university and the other public colleges in the state.
The recent efforts by the University of Wisconsin to separate itself from the Wisconsin system suggest the level of acrimonious warfare that might break out.
Second, changing financial fortunes call into question the historic mission of public colleges and universities. There are at least two ways to think about this issue.
On the one hand, America established public colleges and universities as the "people's schools," training students for a variety of occupations - many of them critical to the economic wellbeing of the state. They consciously subsidized the tuition charged, thereby making it possible for generations of first-time college bound youth, including immigrants, to receive a college degree. On the other hand, flagship research universities also provide a public good by serving as powerful economic engines that can drive a state and even regional economy. This mandates that they acquire and retain the best talent that they can attract to the state.
Third, every action has a reaction. As the stronger public universities expand their admission recruiting efforts beyond state boundaries, the burden of educating a state's workforce will fall increasingly on other colleges and universities, notably non-research public colleges, private colleges and universities, community colleges, for-profit institutions, and online educational providers.
Is the effect of out-of-state recruiting effectively to "flip" how a state educates it students, relying on groups like small, regional private colleges to meet the state's workforce needs?
Finally, what is the cost of out-of-state recruitment? Should public tax dollars be used as merit grants to attract an out-of-state student? To maintain a quality flagship research operation, should public research universities put additional money into expanded programs and expensive research facilities to compete on a national level? If so, is the solution more debt, public-private partnership investment, or a new operating model built to sustain an evolving mission?
Sometimes short-term solutions can cause long-term headaches in higher education. One concern to watch is that public flagship universities might adopt a private higher education operating model that focuses on higher tuition, deep financial aid discounts, and growing debt to fund "turf" war academic and residential life facilities. It may mean in the end that they can win the battle but lose the war.