As most students and recent graduates know, college tuition has skyrocketed in the past 10-15 years. Private school tuition has certainly trended upward, but it is public university tuition in which the difference has been really pronounced. I have observed a tendency to blame the university for this increase: after all, they are the ones who control their rates. In reality, however, the majority of the tuition increases have been in response to decreased state funding for universities.

The Lincoln Project, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences’ study of public research universities (PRUs), has recently come out with its fifth and final report. Entitled “Recommitting to Lincoln’s Vision: An Educational Compact for the 21st Century,” the report examines the challenges faced PRUs and recommends policies and strategies for addressing them. The recommendations are threefold:

Address Financial Challenges:

State funding for PRUs has declined precipitously in the past fifteen years – even accounting for a slight uptick in the past two years, PRUs are receiving 30 percent less state funding than they were at the turn of the century. PRUs have been able to avoid cutting services only by raising tuition and mining more deeply for efficiencies. Effective thus far, these trends cannot continue forever without negatively affecting the universities.

Reduced state funding has been particularly harmful because it has forced public universities to raise tuition, directly affecting the ability to educate low-income students—one of the key responsibilities of public higher education. For this reason, the authors highlight financial aid for low-income, in-state undergraduate students as the most important program that institutions can provide.

The report also recommends a variety of strategies to cope with diminished state funding. Some examples include:

  • Regional alliances with other PRUs, allowing the schools to combine programs and conserve resources;
  • Specific fundraising focus on unrestricted donations, allowing universities to put the money towards core educational programs rather than capital projects;
  • State creation of long-term funding strategies for PRUs, allowing the universities to more securely plan for their future;
  • Advocating for additional research support from the federal government

Form Public-Private Partnerships:

Universities, and PRUs in particular, are critically important to the business community: they educate the workers and provide the research upon which businesses and corporations build their enterprises. Universities also rely on businesses to hire their graduates and for funding assistance. The Lincoln Report recommends that universities and businesses develop partnerships by establishing research funds, well-paid internships, scholarships, and other support mechanisms. Universities, in turn, should provide easier access to their research and openly work towards partnering with businesses. In the Lincoln Project’s view, there is a natural alliance between PRUs and businesses. It is up to leaders in both camps to forge mutually beneficial partnerships.

Serving Students:

As the report points out, a university is only as good as the service that it provides to its students. The authors suggest several ways that schools can better provide for their students.

  • Simplifying financial aid: Filling out the FAFSA is a complicated process which can act as a barrier to receiving a college education. Simplifying the loan application procedure would help ensure that a larger proportion of students who are interested in higher education get access to the loans they need to pursue their goals.
  • Tracking student performance: Thanks to improved data analysis tools, universities have an enhanced ability to help students graduate once they begin their college career. The report highlights Georgia State University as an example of how a university can use data analytics to help students graduate. GSU’s Graduation and Progressing Success (GPS) Advising system uses an algorithm to pinpoint students at risk of flunking out or dropping out and alerts an advisor, who meets with the student one-on-one. According to the Lincoln Project, these meetings “resulted in a 20 percent increase in graduation rates, reducing time to graduation by half a semester, and eliminating the differences in graduation rates among racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic groups.” Implementing and embracing similar programs elsewhere could lead to significant uptick in national graduation rates, particularly among low-income and underrepresented populations.
  • Improving transfer pathways: Making it easier for students to transfer from community colleges to four-year universities is another way that schools can make higher education more affordable and accessible for their students. By working with local community colleges, four-year universities can help streamline the transfer process and enable prospective community college transfer students to graduate with a four-year degree on time and with as little debt as possible.

Conclusion:

Public universities are better prepared than many institutions to adjust to new budgetary realities: they have their own revenue streams and a significant amount of control over their cost structure. However, in the words of the Lincoln Project, “their budgets are not infinitely flexible.”  Public universities will need to partner with other organizations—private companies, the federal government, and other universities—to continue fulfilling their dual missions of conducting top-level research and providing high-quality higher education to those who want it.

Andrew Orlebeke

After working in Washington, D.C., for two years, Andrew Orlebeke (’10) is in graduate school in Seattle, Washington, studying public policy. In addition to public service, he has a passion for traveling and an abiding love of sports.

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