For regional public colleges to survive, they need to "pare back" their graduate programs and instead differentiate themselves by providing low-cost bachelor's degrees and responding to local workforce needs, argues Arizona State University professor Jeffrey Selingo in the Washington Post.
Sometimes called the "undistinguished middle child of higher education," regional public colleges enroll about 40% of all U.S. undergraduates, compared with public flagship universities' 20% and the Ivy League's 0.5%.
The nearly 400 institutions in this group, however, are not well known. Beginning in the 1990s as teacher training schools, they expanded with undergraduate and graduate programs, eventually becoming universities that "spent needless dollars on fancy campus amenities and athletics teams," Selingo writes. Since 1990, 100 of the colleges added a graduate degree in parks, recreation, and fitness, and about 50 added ones in public administration, education, or business.
During the expansion, they enrolled students who otherwise would have gone to community colleges and required remedial courses. As this population grew, retention rates dropped—as did the schools' reputations.
Now that both state funding for higher education and high school class sizes are falling, regional public universities face a range of challenges.
States' higher ed funding gains concentrated in 3 states, 10 reported decreases
In 50% of states, students at public universities pay more than the state does toward higher education. Public flagship universities—though still struggling themselves—rely more on research grants, private gifts, raising tuition, and out-of-state students who pay more. Their regional counterparts cannot rely on those methods, argues Selingo.
And, President Obama's free community college proposal may mean more federal and state funding cuts for regional schools.
For these institutions to survive, there should be fewer of them, says Selingo, but they prove nearly impossible to close or consolidate because they frequently are the largest area employer—meaning they pack significant political support.
Instead, Selingo urges these schools to trim the "mediocre at best" graduate programs that "swallow up precious resources" and instead focus on responding to area employer needs and providing bachelor's degrees for a low price.
The schools "serve an important middle market for students and their families who need such basic choices as the cost of college spirals ever upward," he concludes (Selingo, Washington Post, 2/9).
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