Time for a New Design for Public Colleges?

With cuts for America’s state universities getting ever more drastic, is it time for a new design for these schools?

Richard Lee Colvin and Forrest Hinton over at the National Conference of State Legislatures believe that public higher education “may require a fundamental redesign.” They write:

Neither the demand for increased post-secondary credentials and degrees nor the budget pressures are going to abate soon. But policy analysts and others who have long called on higher education to make fundamental reforms to reduce costs while maintaining high quality programs and boosting graduation rates see the situation as an opportunity, rather than a tragedy. They say now is the time for legislatures to push colleges to make wider use of online instruction, re-examine degree requirements and give incentives to students to finish more quickly and to colleges to help them. They also need to ease the transition from community colleges to universities, re-examine spending on athletics, and even consider reducing health benefits and salaries.

But would that sort of redesign make things better? Would it increase “the percentage of the American workforce holding postsecondary credentials or degrees,” as President Obama aims to do?

The trouble here is that “wider use of online instruction,” giving “incentives to students to finish more quickly,” and “reducing health benefits and salaries” are all attempts to increase access to higher education while at the same time making that education less valuable.

The problem, Colvin and Hinton explain, is that that at the same time there’s this push to get more people through college, “state appropriations per student fell in 30 states between 2005 and 2010.” Well with a problem like this, why would online instruction and forcing people though college quickly be the solution?

If we’re really serious about getting more Americans through college, maybe it’s not public colleges that require a fundamental redesign. It’s the tax system. Taxes fund public colleges. There might be some problems with incentive structures and college athletics but those things are incidental. Cutting costs might be a good idea; improving efficiently in higher education might be quite beneficial. But cuts alone aren’t going to make state universities much more effective.

If we want public colleges to do more than they do now, and educate more people, we have to ultimately give them more money. Period.

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer