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Trusteeship Magazine

How Is the Historic Role of Public Higher Education Changing?

By Matthew T. Lambert
November/December
2014

Matthew T. Lambert, vice president for university advancement at The College of William & Mary, where he also teaches higher education finance and public policy, has made a study of public higher education, its past, and its future. We asked the author of Privatization and the Public Good: Public Universities in the Balance (Harvard Education Press, 2014) where public higher education is going.

Many believe the public consensus supporting universities at significant levels has all but disappeared. Do you agree?

Over nearly 150 interviews with legislators, policy makers, college presidents, and members of Congress, it became clear that the situation is bleak. Higher education is not at the zenith of its popularity, and changes in political leadership are reshaping priorities, with fewer legislators focused on higher ed. Historically, our nation believed that having an educated citizenry was imperative for a healthy democracy, and so higher education was supported at very high levels. Over time, however, it has come to be seen as a benefit to the individual more so than a public good—particularly in an era of limited resources and competing priorities.

Still, all is not as bleak as it might appear. Even though we should not expect new funding any time soon, most policy makers believe that colleges and universities are vitally important, that they are tremendous assets in which there is universal pride, and that they continue to serve important and valuable public purposes. This demonstrates significant support on which to build.

You speak about a new “public-private” model in higher education. What do you mean by that?

The connections among industry, education, and government are at the core of higher education today—and for the future—and the partnership will have to be about more than just money. In my research, I found many examples of institutions that embody the new public-private model, which requires five key elements: increased private support in the form of philanthropy and alternative business revenues; increased efficiency and cost reduction; stable, even if diminished, funding from the state; sufficient autonomy to achieve those elements; and a continued public mission that emphasizes achieving state goals such as access, economic development, and increased degree attainment.

These five elements are essential to the future for public higher education and will require each stakeholder—state and federal governments (public support and autonomy); students (higher tuition, particularly for those who can afford to pay); faculty and staff (increased efficiency and productivity); and alumni, corporations, and foundations (philanthropy)—to do more or change in meaningful ways. In other words, everyone has to do their part.

How can public institutions and their states achieve a mutually beneficial relationship?

We will often disagree about the best way to use public dollars and what defines the public good, but a vigorous dialogue about the public purposes of higher education can help build consensus and strengthen the bonds among institutional leaders, state and federal leaders, and the public at large. The challenges facing public colleges and universities are complex, but all stakeholders must work together to achieve the public-private partnership—where both the aspirations of the institution and its service to the public good can shine.

What role should boards play in dealing with these new trends?

In an era where governors and legislators often seem to be at war with university leaders, board members can feel as though they are the demilitarized zone between the two. It is more important than ever that boards help bridge the divide between colleges and universities and the public by communicating about the broad purposes institutions serve and why they are valuable to the entire society, and also to work with institutional leaders to find new efficiencies, develop new financial models, and continue to serve the needs of the state. Boards have to recognize that state funding may never return to historic levels, but there are ways they can increase revenues, maintain affordability for those with need, and improve quality. The future of higher education depends on them taking leadership in creating this new model.

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