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.

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College Graduates Prefer City Cores

The Times has an interesting article discussing how college graduates are choosing to live in the cores of large urban areas.  Within this migration are those who become graduate students.  Among the several implications is a new value proposition that graduate programs in these urban areas can offer recruits. Increasingly vibrant live, study, play communities.  This is a good trend that bodes well for these graduate institutions and their metropolitan areas.

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The Humanities Are NOT A Dead End

The best reason to go to grad school has always been to pursue a subject of interest with deep passion. Accomplish that successfully and everything else should fall into its proper place. This applies, especially, to the oft maligned humanities:

Evidence is plentiful that stressing the range of expertise humanities graduates have makes intellectual and economic sense. Take, for example, Damon Horowitz, director of engineering at Google. He insisted recently in an article in The Chronicle of Higher Educationentitled “From Technologist to Philosopher: Why You Should Quit Your Technology Job and Get a Ph.D. in the Humanities,” that “if you are worried about your career … getting a humanities Ph.D. is not only not a danger to your employability, it is quite the opposite. I believe there no surer path to leaping dramatically forward in your career than to earn a Ph.D. in the humanities.” “You go into the humanities to pursue your intellectual passion,” he explains, “and it just so happens, as a byproduct, that you emerge as a desired commodity for industry.”

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