The Privatization of Public Universities

Maureen Downey, a reporter and editor at the Atlanta Journal Constitution with expertise in education policy, was kind enough to invite me to write an opinion piece for her blog. You can read it here.

In essence, the argument is that as states fund less and less of the overall operation of their public universities, these institutions look –and act– more and more like private universities.

The index I used to make this argument is the ratio of state subsidies to net tuition. Net tuition is tuition minus allowances (ie, various scholarships, etc). To measure privatization of public universities, this index is a nice first level, across-the-board way to quickly check how much and how rapidly things are changing.

I had been thinking about this issue for a while mostly in the context of graduate schools. The national trend is a steady reduction in enrollment in public universities that has been offset by private university enrollment. Beyond the politics, why is this enrollment trend happening?

Given that graduate enrollment is mostly demand-driven, my sense is that public universities have simply lost the low tuition advantage they once enjoyed over the private schools. The playing field has been leveled, and to compete effectively the public institutions are going to have to operate more and more as if they are private.

But this is a pretty complex issue. Universities are dynamic places. There are a lot of moving parts over time in how they adapt to a variety of different forces. The erosion of state support is just one such force.

The Georgia Institute of Technology, which is the focus of my article on Maureen’s blog, is adapting by leveraging its superlative reputation as an engineering school to construct a highly selective admissions process. Georgia Tech is laying the ground work now for when the day arrives that it is fully private, for all intents and purposes.


Author: TJ Murphy

Gradschoolmatch Founder