“Public Ivy” Input

The so called Public Ivies, America’s most selective and high-profile public universities, have long been a good deal for American parents. But in recent years state budget cuts have led many of America’s flagship public universities to hike tuition.

But the leaders of such schools could, perhaps, be a source of solution to higher education. So seems to argue University of Michigan President Mary Sue Coleman as part of her response to President Obama’s recent meeting to discuss the costs of higher education. According to an article by Daniel de Vise in the Washington Post:

Coleman wants [Obama] to take a leadership role “in elevating the issue and stimulating the conversation” about keeping college affordable — especially public colleges, and particularly for the students who can least afford to attend.

Coleman envisions the Obama administration leading the states back from their steady retreat in subsidizing public higher education. She thinks it will might take the personal leadership of the president, along with business leaders and other voices, to persuade legislatures that “states shouldn’t abandon their public institutions, because public institutions bring rewards back to the state.”

Coleman is one of several influential college presidents who are taking a stand in defense of the nation’s great public universities as “drivers of social mobility in this country.”

Public Ivy as a concept dates from Richard Moll’s 1985 book Public Ivies: A Guide to America’s best public undergraduate colleges and universities. He designated eight schools: the College of William & Mary Miami University of Ohio, the University of Michigan, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the University of Texas at Austin, the University of Vermont, the University of Virginia, and the whole University of California system as “public ivies.”

Such schools were not only selective; they were also sort of elite in that old-buildings-and-famous-graduates matter of America’s actual ivies. And they were cheap. As Moll argued, they “provide an Ivy League collegiate experience at a public school price.”

Well about that price, it’s not working out so well. States are spending, on average, about one-fifth less per student on higher education than they did ten years ago.

If decision makers want more people to graduate from college and college to be affordable to students, several things need to change. But one thing is just that states need to provide their public institutions with more money, Coleman argues.

Advocacy from the leaders of these public ivies might be able to reverse the trend. According to de Vise’s piece, “the top publics, [Coleman] contends, play an outsize role in preparing the next generation of leaders — and in keeping the nation competitive with ambitious higher-education agendas in other parts of the world.”

Can such schools fix the higher education problem Obama has outlined? Well, perhaps.

At this point higher education leaders have proposed a few funding options. One option, as the University of California at Berkeley’s Robert Birgeneau explained, is to federalize higher education. As he put it back in 2009 “our great public research and teaching universities [would] receive basic operating support from the federal government and their respective state governments.”

The other option is to pretty much privatize public higher education and operate, as the real ivies do, such that students are essentially billed based on their ability to pay. Charge high tuition and offer poor students generous financial aid.

But which option is most likely to result in affordable higher education and an increase in the number of college graduates?

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