Universities in Decline
New York Times
August 26, 2003, Tuesday
Public colleges and universities, which grant more than three-quarters of this country's degrees, have been steadily undermined by state budget cuts and a mood of legislative indifference. They have responded by raising tuition beyond the reach of many poor and working-class families. Now, faced with less and less state support, some universities have begun to cannibalize themselves by increasing class size and cutting course offerings, making it difficult for students to find the courses they need to graduate.
An education reporter at The Times, Greg Winter, recently described an alarming trend in which some of the country's best public universities are actually unable to provide students with the required courses they need to finish their degrees. The institutions that have cut back on research assistants and other basic support services have grown fearful of losing high-profile professors, along with the hundreds of millions of dollars the professors bring in with their research grants. Such an exodus would actually leave some schools or departments insolvent.
This downward spiral began in the 1980's, when many state legislatures began to back away from their commitments to public higher education, leading to higher tuition rates. Federal and state financial aid to those who cannot pay has failed to keep pace. This has increasingly discouraged the neediest students from applying to colleges at all.
The poor, however, have turned out to be the canary in the coal mine. The disappearing courses and the threatened exodus of money-raising researchers are clear signs that some of the country's most important public universities are in crisis. Unless the country renews its commitment to public higher education, the universities will find their faculties decimated and their degrees devalued -- and the students who can afford to pay looking elsewhere for college degrees. The states will then learn that important institutions are easy to destroy and devilishly difficult to rebuild.