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Access and Opportunity
This is a critical moment for public higher education, one that requires new approaches

By Matthew Goldstein

 
THE CHALLENGES facing higher education, and the threats particular to public institutions, such as The City University of New York, are very real. And this is happening across the country.

Let me start with some basics. Public colleges and universities educate almost 80 percent of our country’s students. They include the well-known research powerhouses that we’re all familiar with—the University of Texas, the University of California, the University of Wisconsin—but they also include smaller four-year institutions and two-year institutions. In fact, community colleges are the largest and fastest-growing sector of higher education in the nation. They enroll almost half of all undergraduates. Last year, the share of young people attending college in the United States hit an all-time high, and that increase was driven solely by two-year colleges—CUNY’s six community colleges among them. I call community colleges the sleeping giants of higher education.

In New York State, the two public university systems, SUNY and CUNY, together serve well over 650,000 students—at research institutions, liberal arts colleges and community colleges. When we talk about college students and college faculty, this is whom we’re talking about. And all of these students and faculty are experiencing the results of a freefall of state support for public higher education.

Across the country, between 1987 and 2006, the average share of public universities’ operating revenues from state sources dropped from 57 percent to less than 41 percent. (In New York, it dropped more than 13 percentage points.) And since 2006, the country’s recession has prompted even greater cuts by states.

You’ve seen the headlines about California this year. The University of California system saw its state support reduced by nearly 20 percent in 2009. Since 1990, state funding per-student for education at UC has dropped from 78 percent of the total cost of education to 58 percent.

But California is not an isolated case. Without the contributions that have come from the federal stimulus package, the total state support for public higher education across the country would have dropped 3.5 percent this year (2009-10) and 6.8 percent over the last two years.

Of course, there is variation among states. Some, including small-population states like Montana and North Dakota, but also larger states like Texas, showed increases. But eleven states had significant one-year declines of more than five percent—even when we include the federal stimulus funds. These include California, Michigan, Ohio, Washington and Virginia—all home to celebrated public research universities. At UC Berkeley alone, research has led to almost 2,000 inventions, and its alumni have founded 250 companies. The University of Michigan has licensed close to 50 startup companies in just the last five years.

As James Duderstadt, the former president of the University of Michigan, has said about state funding, public universities have gone from being “state-supported” to being “state-assisted,” then “state-related,” and now “state-located.” I would suggest that we are sometimes “state-assaulted.”

Complicating the decline in state support are two factors: One is unprecedented enrollment growth, largely spurred by the country’s recession; and the other is a growing need to prepare more students to a higher skill level.

The recession is largely the cause of the most recent growth. But CUNY’s decade-long increases are the result of our long-term focus on raising academic standards and burnishing our academic reputation. With that comes more students, and better-prepared students, who are retained in higher numbers.

At the same time, I hope students across the country are recognizing that they live in a world in which a college education is more important than ever. We’ve all talked about the country’s evolution from a manufacturing economy to a knowledge economy, one in which advanced skills are increasingly necessary. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has pointed out that 30 of the fastest-growing fields require a minimum of a bachelor’s degree. In this economic environment, going to college cannot be a privilege for the fortunate few. We need more highly skilled graduates.

So, our situation is clear: Public higher education is asked to do more with less. Enrollments climb, state funding drops, and the pressure mounts to raise tuition and deepen cuts. Examples abound: Students at the University of Washington absorbed a 14 percent tuition hike. The University of Illinois ordered furloughs and warned students of the possibility of a high tuition hike later this year. The University of Florida is looking to reduce enrollment by 4,000 by 2012. The University of California had to raise tuition by 32 percent in November.

As University of California President Mark Yudof and I—and so many others—continue to say, we cannot simply fill in revenue gaps with tuition. Keeping college accessible is critical to public higher education’s core mission. The Morrill Act of 1862, which provided land to states for colleges, codified the importance of accessible public higher education for Americans. It enabled the development of the University of California, Pennsylvania State University, The Ohio State University, the University of Wisconsin, and so many other stellar public institutions. That is a tradition we cannot abandon.

Public higher education simply can’t compromise on access or on academic quality. So we must be creative and entrepreneurial. Public institutions must take responsibility for ever-escalating and legitimately incurred costs; they cannot ask students and government to foot the bill. Whether through reorganization, an expansion of revenue sources, or improved efficiency and productivity generated by sometimes difficult and unpopular decisions, state universities must step up to the plate. We need to emulate some of the approaches long embodied by private institutions: building endowments, finding entrepreneurial opportunities, monetizing the use of physical assets.

Let me offer an example. A few years ago I proposed a new financing model for public higher education, one that spreads the responsibility for funding. It’s called the CUNY Compact, and it delineates a partnership between state government and the university—with state government supporting basic operations, and the institution itself, through tuition, productivity measures and philanthropy, supporting investments at the university.

The compact recognizes that states are spread thin financially but should support public higher education at a base operating level. And it calls for modest, predictable tuition increases, based on economic indicators. Students and their families shouldn’t be hit hardest during economic downturns; they need to be able to plan for college costs.

It also emphasizes the need for increased philanthropy, something that would have been unheard of at one time. But in 2004, CUNY launched its first-ever university-wide campaign, and we met our $1.2 billion goal four years early. We’re now in phase two, working to reach $3 billion. Support from friends and alumni, along with innovative public-private partnerships, is vital to our ability to invest in the university: to build sophisticated research centers, to attract the best faculty, to improve our technology infrastructure, to ensure that students have the programs and services they need. CUNY alumni include 12 Nobel laureates, and that’s a tradition we are committed to expanding.

Public institutions must also be willing to reorganize when necessary. We need to focus on restructuring strategies that best reflect our institutional strengths and opportunities for growth. When I began as chancellor in 1999, the university was under some political pressure to establish a couple of flagship colleges. This is the model in most states, which have one or two flagship public institutions (with the exception of California, which has several). Instead, we took the approach of building up and re-imagining several disciplinary areas in a collaborative way—fields like photonics, the biological sciences, computer science and new media, teacher education and foreign languages. This was done in a very deliberate fashion, with the intention of raising the level of quality and productivity across the university in selected areas. The CUNY system’s geographic density is unique among public systems, and it allows us—in fact, almost compels us—to work as a more integrated system.

Reorganization also entails rigorous program review and assessment. All of us are tempted to be like the institution across the street. If they have a particular Ph.D. program, we wonder if we need the same one. But public institutions have to look carefully and honestly at their offerings. At CUNY, we have some world-class graduate programs in the arts and humanities, and we must retain their prominence. In the past, we gave less attention to very promising areas in our science and technology graduate programs, and we are focused on building them up now. But there are still other programs that, frankly, give me cause for concern. We have to be willing to cut, reshape and grow, in order to ensure academic quality and make the best use of our resources.

Public institutions also need to be more aggressive about strengthening research efforts and cultivating an entrepreneurial spirit in order to commercialize those efforts. But while some public institutions have developed renowned research programs, others need to further develop targeted areas that reflect the institution’s strengths and potential. That’s part of the reason that I created what we call the “Decade of Science” initiative at CUNY. We are working to strengthen our science programs, but we are doing so in a way that reflects our integrated approach. For example, rather than building world-class research facilities on a number of campuses, we are constructing a CUNY-wide Advanced Science Research Center that will house researchers pulled from several CUNY campuses. The center will focus on selected areas—photonics, nanotechnology, environmental sensing, structural biology and neuroscience—and will be located in Manhattan, on the City College campus, for greater accessibility by all.

There is much that public institutions can do to meet their growing funding challenges. But I would also suggest that when even the modest funding goals of the compact idea become difficult for states to meet, the federal government may need to assume a larger role in public higher education. A sustained period of decline in state funding can be very difficult to recover from, even for well-established universities. In fact, my colleagues in California have proposed a 21st-century version of the Morrill Act to encourage federal investment in the operation of the country’s great public research and teaching universities in order to maintain their core mission: access and opportunity.

In my view, the decline of support for public higher education, and the stagnation that results from neglect, is nothing less than a national security crisis. Our economic and social well-being, and our scientific and technological leadership, rely on our country’s universities.

Our future will be defined by the public investment we make in higher education and, at the same time, by our institutional ability to innovate and stay nimble. This is a critical moment for public higher education, one that requires new approaches. We simply must not squander the truly remarkable power and potential at our public universities.


Matthew Goldstein has served as chancellor of The City University of New York since September 1999, and is the first CUNY graduate (City College, class of 1963) to do so.

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National CrossTalk May 2010

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