US state colleges in 'crisis'

February 16, 1996

United States. Financial insecurity, a sense of lost mission, and a wave of public criticism from the political right are fueling talk of a crisis at state colleges in the United States.

The institutions' umbrella group, the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges, has formed a commission to respond to what is called a "seismic quiver" in the landscape of public universities.

New York governor George Patakis's proposal to cut his state university's budget by 6 per cent is just the latest reminder, amid the national budget deadlock, that government funds are tight and likely to remain so. Federal research dollars are increasingly scarce.

After four years in which fees have risen by 50 per cent, far above the rate of inflation, is bringing renewed pressure on the colleges to show students and their families they are getting their money's worth.

"We've raised tuition significantly as a counterbalance to the loss of state support," said the association president C. Peter Magrath.

"As you raise tuition you inevitably raise questions."

While he insisted most public universities are top-notch institutions, "that is not good enough for the environment we are in". Congress speaker Newt Gingrich is on record as saying that higher education is "out of control, increasingly out of touch with the rest of America". Public universities are vulnerable to this kind of criticism, which has given fresh impetus to old complaints - that colleges have dropped admission standards to enrol more students and that faculty pays only lip service to the business of teaching.

Remedial courses in reading, writing and maths are offered at 70 per cent of universities, while senior faculty spend on average only about ten hours a week in the classroom with their students, it is estimated. Reformers on local governing boards have pressed for a harder look at both students and staff.

In an expansion that began when the GI Bill of 1944 filled undergraduate rolls with ex-servicemen, higher education system has grown dramatically from 1.7 million students before second world war to 14.4 million today. There are signs of a pause in that juggernaut. After decades of rising tuition fees some colleges, facing a fiercely competitive environment, are breaking with precedent to look at price cuts. Massachusetts public colleges have cut fees 5 to 10 per cent and the California state system has frozen them.

That may be well received. In public opinion polls, most respondents say that US colleges are not good value for money. The new 25-member Kellogg Commission, funded by the Kellogg Foundation, was created by the association to address funding problems and set a new agenda.

Gordon Gee, president of Ohio State University, is among those warning of competition from corporate training centres such as Motorola University, and from companies who "believe they can do a better job of educating their work force than we can". "We will either be the architects of change or we will be its victims," he said.

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