Plight of the Regional Public University

For several decades now, state higher education policymakers have implemented regulations, policies, and legislation that created incentives for institutions to maximize their own prestige as well as the private economic benefit for students. The emphasis and hyper-attention paid to vocational and economic returns of higher education undercut the foundation of the liberal arts core as well as institutional diversity, as I’ve written about in the past. A recent Chronicle of Higher Education story about Western Illinois University and regional public universities more generally provide yet another clear example of how these policies are failing higher education, our country, and our students.

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Colleges and universities of all stripes— but particularly regional universities— have been encouraged and some cases forced to pursue market-based strategies that led to revenue and prestige generation. 

Significant deregulation and funding decreases have caused mission drift and most experts believe a decline in the diversity of institutions present in the U.S. system of higher education.

There are many examples of this from the privileging of the research university model to the growing aspirations of regional universities to the growth of graduate and doctoral programs at institutions traditionally focused on undergraduate education.

State leaders must realize that their actions directly and indirectly influence the actions of universities and they can’t afford to weaken regional public universities, the backbone of a state’s higher education system.

Deregulation and reductions in state appropriations hit these institutions harder than most. They frequently don’t have access to out of state students, large endowments, or research grants. Moreover, they are pressured by lower cost and online providers such as community colleges or for profit institutions.

Instead, state policy leaders should consider reforms and policies that encourage and incentivize universities to achieve their particular role within that state’s higher education system.

For example, performance funding measures should give regional universities credit for providing access to first generation students and disadvantaged students. Without providing for the different role of regional universities, state policy can place these institutions at a significant competitive and financial disadvantage.

A common metric used by states and coordinating boards is to look at enrollments either total course enrollments or the number of graduates.

However, this metric is tricky for regional universities that need to provide a comprehensive and accessible liberal arts education. If your focus is on a broad education, low enrollments in your philosophy or physics departments have less clear implications than policymakers like to assume.

What if there are too few English majors? Are you still a university without certain core disciplines? These are tough questions for regional public universities to answer.

When does a regional university turn into a vocational training institute and what implications does that have for the region and state?

These are important questions too frequently considered in debates couched in purely economic terms.

Many policymakers from President Obama to state governors across the country have called for more STEM graduates and established programs to support these students.

At other times, President Obama and governors have mocked students pursuing humanities and liberal arts degrees or moved to remove state funding for such programs.

The obsession with vocational outcomes only serves to foster the current unproductive privatization movement, limit access for underrepresented groups, and drive higher education further away from its historic missions.

Instead, I suggest policymakers look to encourage institutions to succeed within their particular niche inside the state’s higher education system. This approach can help the entire system achieve the full range of goals and needs of society.

By encouraging institutions to fulfill broader goals, policy can limit the destructive institutional aspirations that we’ve seen in recent years.

If left to their own, institutions will seek to maximize their prestige, revenue, and profit. As with any organization, the university will pursue those things that are rewarded by the environment.

Think of the possibilities if state policy instead encouraged institutional decisions that improved student learning and outcomes rather than prestige or revenue!

In many cases, public regional universities offer students a second or even third chance at pursuing higher education. We want and need these institutions to fulfill the promise Americans expect of their postsecondary education system.

Yet, state legislators must provide more funding and more stable funding that will enable institutions to make decisions based on their students’ best interests within being forced to obsess over the institutions balance sheet.

We simply can’t expect institutions focused on layoffs and how to slash expenses to be forward thinking institutions preparing students for personal and career success. University leaders can’t spend all day looking at ways to save money while also preparing their institutions for the new century.

It isn’t reasonable to expect them to do both.

How powerful could it be to have state higher education policy that gave serious attention to the teaching or public service missions of universities while also valuing the specific missions of college and universities in a state?

How powerful could it be to have state higher education policy create rewards, structures, and motivation to develop students as critical thinkers with strong communication skills for the careers of today and 30 years from now?

Unfortunately, much of our higher education policy fails to do this.

Not only have colleges and universities not recovered from the economic damage caused by the Great Recession, but many have faced increased calls for accountability in the face of state funding declines.

Even prior to the recession, the traditional compact between students, universities, and government showed signs of breaking.

The general anti-tax rhetoric in the country as well as the conservative hold on many statehouses has dramatically reduced the support for higher education.

Today, state budgets are more focused on health care, corrections, and K-12 education than postsecondary education priorities.

While many politicians are eager to lambast universities over growing tuition and student debt, they aren’t as willing to admit their own complicity in escalating the problem.

In effect, tuition increases have become a tax increase on students without having to take the political hit thanks to blaming universities for the increases.

And of course, universities deserve some of the blame here for persuasively arguing their value in economic and vocational terms ignoring the public benefits of their work.

Without the broader societal and public benefits of higher education, why should state leaders support universities over other pressing state needs?

State flagship institutions and research universities may be able to privatize and continue an upward trajectory in the current environment.

Regional public universities with limited ability to raise revenues aren’t so lucky.

Instead, they have to decide what programs to cut, how many staff to layoff, and which disciplines get to stay.

Unfortunately, in the current higher education policy environment, this is the plight of the regional public university.