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Cash-Strapped State Schools Being Forced to Privatize

6 minute read

In just a few weeks, nearly ten thousand students will rise en masse inside Michigan Stadium and join the ranks of the alumni of one of the nation’s premier universities. They’ll walk away from the University of Michigan with a top notch education, but also the distinction of possibly being one of the last graduating classes of a genuinely public institution.

The cash-strapped state of Michigan is looking to save money any way it can, and some political leaders have suggested essentially privatizing the state’s flagship university. While formally turning the school into a private university would be tricky — requiring legislative approval, a constitutional amendment, and the support of the university’s Board of Regents — legislators have proposed eliminating the $327 million in funding that the state provides to the university each year. Making up the state’s contribution, however, would require an endowment on the order of $16 billion, a nearly impossible task even in flush times. (Just a few years ago, the school’s endowment was around $7.5 billion, but it has taken a significant hit with the fall of the stock market.) Which means that in order to survive, the university may have to make dramatic changes that could threaten its character. (See pictures of the college dorm’s evolution.)

Michigan’s long-serving 19th-century president James Angell used to say that the school provided “an uncommon education for the common man.” But many are starting to wonder if that mission is still possible. And Michigan is not the only public university in crisis. As states across the country face budget shortfalls, leading schools like the universities of Wisconsin, North Carolina and Virginia increasingly depend on support from outside their home states, either in the form of philanthropy or in top tuition rates paid by a growing number of wealthy out-of-state students. The result has already been a quasi-privatization of some of the nation’s top research institutions and the economic stratification of their student bodies.

James Duderstadt, UM president from 1988 to 1996, has argued for years that it is a misnomer to call schools like the University of Michigan “state universities.” The state’s annual contribution to the school’s operating budget is now less than 6%, about half the share that California puts into its state schools and roughly the same level as Virginia. “The state is our smallest minority shareholder,” says Duderstadt. (See TIME’s special report on paying for college.)

The state’s financial role has in fact been shrinking throughout the past decade as its economy foundered. Last year, the university provost’s office complained in a report to the Board of Regents that the state’s “assumed allocation will put our state appropriation at a level that is almost $34 million lower than the amount that was appropriated for FY2002, in nominal dollars, and nearly $100 million lower in inflation-adjusted dollars.” At the same time, the university has helped prop up the struggling local economy by approving more than $500 million in construction and renovation projects.

Traditionally, state universities provided an affordable education for its residents by offering subsidized in-state tuition. For Lansing native Anneke Stadt, a sophomore nursing student, the $11,037 tuition is the main reason she’s at the University of Michigan. Stadt says she looked into private schools like Hope College ($33,000 tuition) and Kalamazoo College ($38,000 tuition). “I couldn’t really afford them, though,” she explains, “so I hedged my bets with the public school.”

As schools like Michigan struggle to make up falling state contributions, however, fewer students like Stadt are getting slots in entering classes. Out-of-state students pay $33,000 in tuition at Michigan — nearly three times the amount that residents bring in — and those extra dollars are needed more than ever. Non-residents now make up 37% of undergraduates at the university; add graduate students and nearly half the university’s students comes from out-of-state. A leading public university like University of California at Berkeley, by contrast, only pulls 8% of its undergraduates from outside California.

The temptation for Michigan to substantially increase its revenue by accepting more non-residents who are eager to attend has to be hard to resist. While speculating what would happen if the university moved to a private, market-based system, current president Mary Sue Coleman wrote in 2005 that “historically two-thirds of our applications have been from national or international students, and yet about two-thirds of our enrolled students have been from Michigan.”

“It was the state support that allowed us to have that public character,” Duderstadt argues. As that support drops, student bodies are becoming not only more national but also more stratified. “We still promise that no Michigan student will ever be denied the opportunity to attend for financial reasons,” Duderstadt says. “But that means we can’t provide help for students from out-of-state. So the economic distribution for them is significantly different from those in-state.” One fairly reliable measure of the economic diversity of a campus is the percentage of students who receive Pell Grants. Roughly 30% of the undergraduates at UCLA or UC-Berkeley are Pell Grant recipients. At Michigan, by contrast, that number is only around 12%.

So far, public universities like Michigan have been confident about their ability to attract enough wealthy out-of-state students to help fill their coffers. But it will become difficult to continue competing with private institutions if they cannot simultaneously expand their research capacity and recruit top-flight faculty. And the struggling economy is forcing even wealthy families to look for the best value for their tuition dollars. For just $5,000 more in tuition, an out-of-state student could forgo Michigan for New York University, the nation’s largest private school with nearly double the number of faculty. In recent years, international enrollments at American public universities has also dropped as more students turn to premier schools in Europe and Asia.

“In other parts of the world,” says Duderstadt, “countries view it as a national interest to build institutions of world-class quality. The U.S. is unique in not having a national strategy for maintaining world-class universities.” True, the American system of state universities has until recently done pretty well for itself, building solid schools, fostering strong regional pride and creating some fierce athletic rivalries. But as Michigan and other top public universities are learning, fight songs and sports fans aren’t enough to finance a first class education.

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