Free the public universities

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Date: May 13, 2016
From: The Chronicle of Higher Education(Vol. 62, Issue 35)
Publisher: Chronicle of Higher Education, Inc.
Document Type: Article
Length: 1,269 words
Lexile Measure: 1410L

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Over the last decade, the fate of America's public universities has commanded considerable attention. The principal concern has been the impact that steadily declining levels of state support for higher education has had on tuition levels, enrollment patterns, and program offerings and priorities.

Since 2000, public universities have lost 25 percent of their state funding per student. The University of California at Berkeley, one of the leading public research universities in the nation, now receives only about 13 percent of its budget from state appropriations, compared with about 50 percent a few decades ago. This shift from public to private funding support has led many to conclude that we are witnessing nothing less than the privatization of the public research university.

But while public universities can be said to be "privatizing," another equally powerful, but typically overlooked, trend has been moving in the opposite direction--the "publicization" of private research universities, or the accelerated incorporation of public values and mission into the traditional role of these institutions.

Taken together, privatizing public institutions and publicizing private institutions suggest nothing less than a convergence of these once very different institutions.

This convergence has taken a number of forms. For instance, one of the traditional calling cards of a public university has been its affordability. But the decline in state funding has forced public universities to lean far more heavily on tuition revenue. Since 2000, the average net tuition at public four-year institutions--that is, published tuition and fees less financial aid--has risen by 136 percent. By contrast, due in large measure to an investment of endowment funds into financial aid, net tuition at private institutions has risen by only 17 percent in the same period. There are now private research universities, such as Harvard and Emory, that cost less after financial aid than a number of their public peers.

Another of the once-distinctive traits of public research universities is accessibility, or...

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