State Budgets

Public Universities Lose Their Value as Costs Increase

The latest college rankings are out and public universities continue to be an important part of the conversation, even if their traditional “value” has decreased.

Forbes magazine released its list of top colleges and universities, ranking two non-Ivy League schools at the top, Stanford and Pomona. Setting aside military schools, the highest ranked public universities in the top 50 were University of California, Berkley (22), University of Virginia (28), University of Michigan, Ann Arbor (30), University of California, Los Angeles (34), University North Carolina, Chapel Hill (38), and College of William and Mary (44).

Rather than focus on the credentials of incoming students, Forbes stresses that its results focus solely on the outputs. The methodology, formed in partnership with the Center for College Affordability and Productivity (CCAP), looks at student satisfaction, post-graduate success, student debt, graduation rate and nationally competitive awards.

The financial aspects of Forbes’ methodology could contribute to the relatively low number of public institutions in the top 50. In comparison, the U.S. News and World Report rankings place 16 state public schools in the top 50. Although public universities usually have markedly lower tuitions for in-state students, state support for public higher education has been decreasing, causing greater financial strain on students and their families.

The National Association of State Budget Officers (NASBO) reports that in 2011, 10.1 percent of total state spending goes towards higher education, compared with 13 percent in 1998. As a result, tuition rates have gone up as cuts have increased. At the top-ranked public school, UC Berkeley, student protested the changes.

States face many challenges when dealing with its universities. For one, the nature of higher education has dramatically changed. No longer is college just an option after high school-it has become almost mandatory. When lawmakers receive angry calls from parents whose children cannot get admitted into the state’s top universities, legislators put pressure on university administrators to accept more in-state students, but rarely follow that up with a promise of more funding.

Out of state students wind up subsidizing the education cost of the in-state students that the state legislature refuse to support. William and Mary President Taylor Reveley joked that the university would like to enroll greater numbers of out-of-state students, “or as I like to call them, ‘bags of gold with feet,'” adding that the students “really pull a lot of the weight around here.” (Having been one of those out of staters in Williamsburg, I know what he means.)

All of these factors combine to make it difficult for many states universities to grace the top of the college rankings lists. But some changes are being made to make attending college less costly for students. Washington has instituted a tuition freeze after the state increased the higher education budget. The aforementioned William and Mary has instituted a new program that locks the in-state tuition rate for four years for each incoming class of students.

What makes the Forbes rankings particularly tough for supporters of public education to accept is that the list is supposed to highlight “value” colleges and universities. Public schools, for many years, had the distinct advantage of offering very high quality education with a substantially lower price tag. Financial pressures have all put wiped out those notions.

Lawmakers must decide the role of their state universities in the national picture, not just within their own borders. Public schools must compete with the most elite private institutions to even keep in-state students in the state. If the value isn’t there, public institutions of higher learning are failing at one of their most basic attributes.

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