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When colleges compete, the public loses, says new public agenda survey

10/1/2002
October 1, 2002

As colleges and universities compete for students, funding and prestige, higher education's ability to live up to its commitment to the public has begun to erode, says a new study.

Sponsored by The Futures Project: Policy for Higher Education in a Changing World, the report is titled “Meeting the Competition: College and University Presidents, Faculty, and State Legislators View the New Competitive Academic Arena.”

Public Agenda, a non-profit public opinion and research organization, moderated a series of conversations among 47 academic and political leaders. In them, college and university presidents, faculty members and state legislators spoke candidly about mounting pressures on higher education and the special challenges they presented.

Many of the leaders say that market forces are rapidly reshaping institutions of higher learning. New technologies have made it necessary for colleges that once competed regionally to compete nationally and even internationally. The accessibility and market share of for-profit universities is growing.

In this new climate, many of the college presidents and other leaders who were interviewed say that their institutions find themselves straying from their public mission as they scramble for the best students, the most profitable programs, winning sports teams, more research dollars and higher rankings in popular lists.

The resulting report, authored by John Immerwahr, a Senior Research Fellow with Public Agenda and Villanova University's associate vice president for academic affairs, documented six major themes.

Participants were keenly aware of the impact of new technologies, competition from for-profit and virtual institutions and an expansion of the competition from existing institutions. As one regional college president said, "This is the most competitive higher education market that any of us have seen."

Many worried about the convergence of two trends: limited public revenues and the growing number of new competitors, who might "cherry pick" the more profitable programs, leaving traditional institutions responsible for offering less popular and more expensive programs.

Academics and legislators are divided over how much autonomy states should give public institutions. College presidents want more control over their operations to meet the new competition. State policymakers are reluctant to cede their authority without a way to guarantee accountability. In the words of one legislator, "My first concern is this: what do you do if a president really screws up? There have to be some consequences."

Academics and legislators also disagree on how best to assess an institution's performance. Legislators want specific evidence of how well colleges and universities educate their students. But many in the higher education community are skeptical of the need for such measures and say it's impossible to quantify a college education. According to one institutional president, "This is not one of the things I get up in the morning and worry about. There is no way to ultimately measure outcomes."

Institutions now compete intensely for the top-end students. This has resulted in a new emphasis on merit-based aid. Critics charge that this only benefits students who are already economically advantaged. Defenders say it's necessary to keep some of the brightest students in public colleges and universities and in their home states.

Disadvantaged students are the biggest losers in this environment. No one competes for the low-income students, many of whom come from minority and immigrant communities. One interview participant suggested that, "Those who are seen as competitors aren't interested in the poor, because it brings too many burdens." Representatives from regional four-year colleges and community colleges complain that they must provide remediation with inadequate funding.

"These trends have wider implications for both higher education and the citizens it serves," said Frank Newman, founder and director of the Futures Project. "At stake are key issues: Will a college education be affordable? Will less well-off students be able to attend college, and more importantly, graduate? Will we be able to trust the corporate-sponsored research on which so much depends? Will public universities and community colleges have the funding to support the community service activities that are the hallmark of American higher education?"

"University and college leaders want less regulation and more money," Newman said. "Legislators want the institutions to be more accountable. The Futures Project wants both groups to come together and create a plan for a more autonomous and more accountable higher education system focused on service to the people."

The report is available online at www.futuresproject.org.