US publics face survival battle and reconnection with local mission

State institutions that survive crisis will face student influx and must prioritise ‘communities they were designed to serve’, experts say

May 21, 2020
Citizens wearing protective masks form lines to receive free food from a food pantry run by the Council of Peoples Organization on May 8, 2020 in the Midwood neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York.
Source: Getty

Public universities in the US that survive the fallout from the Covid-19 crisis could be “strengthened” in the long run by being forced to reconnect with their local communities, according to a scholar of the sector’s history.

Stephen Gavazzi, professor of human development and family science at Ohio State University, said the funding problems caused by the pandemic could hit some public higher education institutions in the country hard.

But those that come through the crisis would have the opportunity to make a powerful case for more public funding in the future if they can rediscover their main purpose of meeting the “needs of the communities for which they were designed to serve”.

His comments come amid warnings that, ahead of the current crisis, funding for public institutions had barely recovered from the impact of the 2007-08 financial crash, which led to several years of cuts in money from state governments.

In its latest annual financial report published this month, the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association (SHEEO) warned that state government funding per student was still almost 9 per cent below 2008 levels in real terms.

These cuts have been offset in most cases by universities increasing income from tuition fees: the amount of revenue per student that public higher education received from tuition charges climbed by almost 40 per cent over 10 years to $6,902 (£5,660) in 2019.

Much of this has been down to public universities recruiting more students from outside their home states or from overseas, who pay higher fees.

But with major declines in international enrolments being forecast next year as a result of the pandemic and with state government budgets likely to be squeezed again amid the economic fallout, there are concerns about how public universities can maintain their income in the coming years.

In an editorial accompanying the SHEEO report, the organisation’s president, Robert Anderson, suggested that a reliance on tuition fee income may have reached a limit given that over the past four US recessions, higher education “has faced consecutively steeper declines and smaller recoveries in state support”.

“In more than half of all states, the majority of total education revenues now come from student tuition dollars. In 1980, student tuition made up only 21 per cent of total revenue,” he wrote.

“This privatization of what is, and what ought to remain, a broad public resource threatens the core of the enterprise. Our public institutions ought to be publicly oriented and committed to advancing the states’ interests. The only way this can be properly ensured is through an appropriate level of state investment.”

Jamil Salmi, former tertiary education coordinator for the World Bank, pointed out that at the same time as being starved of funding, public universities would also be faced with greater domestic student demand resulting from mass unemployment and college closures elsewhere.

“I can see that many [smaller] private colleges are going to go under, and you are going to have students switching back to community colleges or public universities. If they don’t have proper funding to handle this influx of students, they are going to have problems,” he said.

One area that could be potentially significant is class size.

Data from Times Higher Education’s World University Rankings already show that public universities in the US score much lower on average for student-to-staff ratios compared with private institutions. In the 2020 rankings, public US universities scored 46 points on average for performance in this area, compared with 68 for private institutions.

However, Professor Gavazzi said the dire economic situation was exactly “the moment for which public universities were created” and they could bolster the case for future funding by demonstrating to state governments why they were needed.

“Prior to the pandemic, many institutions were on shaky ground financially, mostly due to shifting demographic trends in terms of the declining numbers of traditional-aged college students. The economic fallout of Covid-19 is going to hasten the demise of these already faltering institutions, and it will sorely test others,” he said.

“For those institutions that do survive, however, they will be strengthened in the long run. The mission of these colleges and universities will become sharpened as they are forced to do more with less,” added Professor Gavazzi, who has been working on a new book about the state of US public higher education with Gordon Gee, president of West Virginia University.

“A large component of this fortifying process will involve the rediscovery of the public university’s purpose in terms of meeting the core needs of the communities for which they were designed to serve.”

He added that one consequence of the current crisis might be that international students become a declining feature of public campuses, but this could open up more places for “residents of the states providing the taxpayer dollars that support these universities”.

“And to the extent that the universities can convince state lawmakers that they are providing what the public wants and needs, they eventually will be in a place to ask for increased funding.”


Print headline: Community spirit can be restorative, says expert

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