When James Piereson, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and former president of the Olin Foundation, writes about higher education, he is always provocative. His latest Weekly Standard article is no exception.
Piereson argues that today’s leading public universities (sometimes called the public Ivies) are losing out in prestige and quality to top private universities. Fewer are at the top of the best colleges lists of U.S. News and Forbes, and the gap between average salaries of top public and private schools is growing.
The reason is money—due to the rise of the welfare state.
Competition for state funding comes from Medicaid and K-12 schooling, which are now getting a much bigger slice of state appropriations. Only 10 percent of state governments’ budgets goes to higher education now, says Piereson, compared to 20 percent in the universities’ heyday of the 1950s and 1960s. Other government expenditures are crowding out higher ed.
In addition, while state appropriations to higher education have gone up nominally, the number of students and schools has grown. For example, Michigan has two flagships, but a total of 43 public “institutions of higher learning,” and Wisconsin has 31 plus its flagship.
And while public institutions are doing more private fundraising, the rise of the stock market tends to favor private colleges and universities.
It’s important to note that total revenues of public universities have gone up a lot (83 percent between 2001-02 and 2011-12—compared with a 22 percent increase in state funds). But Piereson’s summary is apt: “Few academics at public universities foresaw in the 1960s that the expansion of the welfare state might eventually come at the expense of their institutions.”