Karen Hitchcock: Public Higher Education - Disinvestment Puts Quality At Risk

Nov 7, 2013

Late one evening not long ago, I had left the TV tuned to the David Letterman show while I finished up some writing.  As the former president of two different public universities – one in the United States and one in Canada – imagine my shock when I heard the following: “I’m dumb, I went to a state college.” Let me repeat that:  “I’m dumb,” said Mr. Letterman, “ I went to a state college.”

Not only was I shocked that this very successful and clever performer would characterize himself as “dumb,” but, more important, I was offended on behalf of the thousands and thousands of talented young people I have been privileged to see graduate from such institutions of public higher education over the years.  I was offended by Mr. Letterman’s apparent assumption that only “dumb” students would choose to attend what to him were clearly second-rate institutions….. despite the fact that our nation’s system of public higher education includes such prestigious institutions as UC-Berkeley, William and Mary, the University of Illinois and, closer to home, UMass Amherst and a number of the SUNY campuses.

Given my surprise that Mr. Letterman would make such a public and all-inclusive condemnation of our nation’s system of public higher education, I did a bit of research on his background.  On closer examination, it appears that the distinction Mr. Letterman was making was between a “state college” – his alma mater, Ball State - and the public institution in Indiana he had hoped to attend if his grades had been better, Indiana University…. a distinction not unlike that between the California State System and the universities comprising the University of California System like UC-Berkeley.

However, as a sound bite, it certainly could be interpreted that Mr. Letterman was making a sweeping – and negative – generalization about all of public higher education in this country. While I would be the first to acknowledge that there are, indeed, wide variations in quality across our some 1700 public institutions of higher education, I would also submit that the overall level of quality is remarkable given the continued disinvestment we have seen in public colleges and universities across most of our nation in recent years.

A recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education with the provocative title, “A Machiavellian Guide to Destroying Public Universities in 12 Easy Steps,” puts it this way - Step 1: “Denigrate public education…to the point that no one would dare ask for increased support. This will assure that public universities are relegated to second-rate status with inferior facilities and loads of part-time faculty members, and will forever have a negative stigma placed on them relative to private universities.”

Clearly, this is not a path we wish to follow, given that some 70% of all undergraduate students in this country attend such public institutions of higher education. And yet, as states feel the continuing impact of a struggling economy, support for most public colleges and universities has decreased in a major way, leading to unprecedented increases in tuition and fees to fill the gap. In fact, tuition and fees have increased more than 70% over the last ten years.  A 2012 National Science Board Report indicated that per student state funding at the 101 major public research universities dropped an average of 20% between 2010 and 2012; ten states had decreases ranging from 30 to 48%. Indeed, Ohio State, Penn State and the University of Michigan now receive less than 7% of their funding from their states, and California has cut the support of its universities some 50% since 1980… all this at a time when post-secondary education has become increasingly important to a robust and internationally-competitive workforce. This free-fall of disinvestment must stop.  Unless there is a recommitment to supporting our nation’s public colleges and universities, quality, indeed, will suffer:  we will continue to see more crowded classrooms, less robust programs of study, decreased diversity in our student population and even more massive student debt upon graduation.

We must, as a nation, strive to retain our well-deserved reputation for quality in our publicly-supported system of higher education. Notwithstanding careless remarks to the contrary, we have much to be proud of: excellent and dedicated professors who provide high- quality educational opportunities to our students.  Continued disinvestment will put such quality at risk. We need to reinvest in our nation’s future; reinvest in our most precious resource- our young people.  In one voice, we need to convey our commitment to public higher education to our elected officials.  This is a public policy issue certainly deserving of our attention and our passionate advocacy.

Dr. Karen Hitchcock, Special Advisor in the consulting firm, Park Strategies, LLC, was President of the University at Albany, State University of New York, from 1996-2004, after which she went on to lead Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, Canada. Dr. Hitchcock has received honorary degrees from Albany Medical College and from her alma mater, St. Lawrence University. She has served  on numerous regional and national committees and task forces dealing with issues in higher education, research and economic development. While at both the University at Albany and Queen’s University, she co-hosted the popular WAMC program, “The Best of our Knowledge”.

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