New Universities

For public universities in states like Washington, the temptation to privatize is becoming overwhelming.
By Bruce Burgett

In spring 2010, a group of University of Washington administrators and faculty members convened a daylong symposium on “new universities.” The occasion of the symposium was the twentieth anniversary of the University of Washington as a multicampus institution (campuses in Bothell and Tacoma were added to the existing campus in Seattle in 1990). The symposium focused on the ongoing policy implications of the state legislature’s commitment two decades earlier to expand access to higher education, on how innovations in higher education take root on “old” and “new” campuses, and on the future possibilities for public higher education regionally and globally. Speakers and participants, including policy makers and current students, focused on corporatization and the global university, distance learning and the digitization of higher education, and applied research and the emergence of the “communiversity.” All emphasized the importance of fostering cross-disciplinary and cross-sectoral partnerships that align with institutional mission, along with the need to understand “new” developments in higher education in relation to their historical precedents.

A year and a half later, this broad set of concerns seems almost quaint. Even as we were preparing for the symposium, the state of Washington and its public universities were involved in extended divorce proceedings. The UW president at the time, Mark Emmert, was lobbying the state legislature for local tuition-setting authority and promoting a funding model based on the merits of high tuition offset by high financial aid. This policy debate was set against the backdrop of a series of multibillion-dollar state budget deficits, a failed ballot referendum to fund education by introducing a state income tax on the wealthiest Washingtonians, and discourses of scarcity that only thinly veiled agendas focused on the upward redistribution of resources. Sound bites in the local media pitted students concerned with issues of access and debt against university spokespersons focused on the relative affordability of an education at the UW in relation to its national peers, the presence of the UW as an economic driver in the region, and the need to maintain educational excellence in the face of major budget cuts. In contrast to other states such as New York or California, student activism and protests were not major factors in the discussions.

The legislature balked at allowing institutions to set their own tuition rates, but it did hit students at the state’s four-year colleges with a 14 percent increase in each of two consecutive years. (Community college students saw 10 percent increases in each year.) At the UW, the two years of increases translated to $1,899, raising in-state tuition and fees from $6,802 in 2008–09 to $8,701 in 2010–11. The state also placed restrictions on faculty hiring and travel that were lifted only in July 2011, and it imposed a freeze on merit and cost-of-living salary increases for most state employees that will continue at least through June 2013. The new revenue and cost controls offset most (though not all) of the 26 percent reduction in biennial state funding to the UW. But they also had the unintended consequence of dissociating state funding from student enrollment targets as tuition became the more significant of the two revenue streams. The result was that the state began to lose control over educational policy issues related to the size and composition of its public universities. All three UW campuses exploited this policy vacuum by bridging the funding crisis through the addition of more in-state students without any additional state funding (the primary strategy at UW Bothell and Tacoma) and more out-of-state students who would pay higher annual tuition of $25,329 (the primary strategy at UW Seattle).

Since that time, the conceptual metaphor of the budgetary bridge has remained, though the landmass on the horizon has changed its shape. Some observers argued plausibly in 2010 that the decline in state funding was a temporary setback for public higher education occasioned by the economic downturn. The events of 2011 revealed the naiveté of this argument. The legislature reduced its contribution to the UW by another 35 percent, while also dramatically shifting how higher education is funded in the state of Washington. For the first time, the state ceded control over tuition rates to the governing bodies of its public universities and allowed tuition to increase differentially across four-year institutions, with authorized increases of up to 16 percent at the UW, Washington State University, and Western Washington University; 14 percent at Central Washington University and Evergreen State College; and 11 percent at Eastern Washington University. In each case, the authorization came with policy caveats about the number of in-state students enrolled and the percentage of new tuition revenue dedicated to financial aid if an institution’s governing body exceeded the authorized tuition increase. The UW regents responded by raising tuition and fees for undergraduates by 20 percent for 2011–12, from $8,701 to $10,574 a year. (The figure below illustrates the shift in who pays for higher education.)

The UW regents clearly understood the significance of this reconfiguration of relations among the state, public higher education, and in-state students. At the June 2011 meeting where the 20 percent tuition hike was confirmed, several regents noted that shifting the burden of the cost of public education to tuition paid by individual students was the toughest decision they had ever had to make. One student in attendance commented that there is a big difference between a tough decision and a tough life. The pathos of this comment underlines the false promise that high financial aid will ever offset high tuition on a mass scale. For the past several years, the UW budget has been balanced on the backs of students, many of whom will nonetheless experience larger classes, reduced academic support services, and more crowded facilities. Assuming that in-state tuition will continue to increase at an average of 9 percent annually over the next five years, an undergraduate student with no financial aid offset will pay more than $16,000 to attend the UW in 2017–18. While financial aid for low-income in-state students will help to mitigate the effects of this increase, students with moderate means or those who are unable to access federal or in-state financial aid will be increasingly unable to afford the UW. Student loan debt—and, some argue, loan defaults—will rise.

Implications of High Tuition, High Aid

The dire short-term consequences of this shift in the UW’s funding model cannot be overstated. But an exclusive focus on those immediate consequences can also distract from the longer-term implications of these policy decisions. The 2011 tuition increase was predictable, even if its magnitude was not. It was part of a long-term trend, and every UW budget-modeling exercise in which I have been involved over the past several years has assumed multiple annual tuition increases ranging between 4 and 16 percent. What was new in 2011 was the UW regents’ decision to exceed the authorized tuition increase by 4 percent, thus triggering the state’s financial aid requirements. The result is that approximately 50 percent of the additional revenue generated by the difference between a 16 percent and a 20 percent increase will be devoted to need-based financial aid for in-state students. The UW was the only institution in Washington that made this choice, though it is important to note that other institutions used alternative mechanisms such as student fees to increase revenue.

There are several ways to understand this policy decision. The first is that the UW made a choice to pursue as aggressively as possible the high-tuition, high-aid model that can be found at other prestigious, internationally competitive public and private universities in the United States. In partial contrast to lower-ranked public universities in Washington, the UW is confident in its ability to attract a sufficient number of in-state (or out-of-state) students who can pay higher tuition, thus financing high aid for other students. In theory, this strategy could work: “from each according to his or her abilities, to each according to his or her needs” is not a bad motto for public higher education. As Christopher Newfield observed at the New Universities symposium, the trouble with this theory is that it does not pencil out if one is concerned with the larger educational system. Using tuition to fund aid can work for a limited number of public and private institutions, but it cannot possibly support mass access to high-quality, research-intensive higher education. What Newfield in Unmaking the Public University calls the “assault on the middle class” has taken official root in the state of Washington, with the future pointing toward increased differentiation among its public institutions of higher education based on their willingness and ability to attract wealthier students.

The second way to understand the decision is that the UW was left with no choice but to adjust to the economic reality of the budget by using the only means at its disposal to avoid even deeper cuts to core instructional areas and activities. This interpretation assumes that the cost of high-quality education is fixed or increasing, an assertion that significant portions of the voting public and state legislature contest with claims about the inefficiencies of all state institutions. When it delegated tuition-setting authority, the legislature also authorized the online Western Governors University to operate as WGU Washington. The Western Governors University, founded in 2002 by governors of nineteen western states, is an entirely online, competency-based university that provides degrees in business, information technology, teaching, and health professions. In this way, the legislature signaled to the state’s public universities its intention of seeking public-private partnerships as a means of providing additional baccalaureate spaces without making any permanent investment in the infrastructure or personnel needed to provide those opportunities. It is likely that the future will similarly reposition the UW, along with other public institutions, not as a “supplicant” seeking funding from the state, to use current UW president Michael Young’s phrasing, but as one of its many “partners.”

The third interpretation is that the UW succumbed to an ideology of privatization by beginning to charge “what the market will bear” for its degrees. This understanding is supported by an increased interest at the UW in establishing differential tuition rates across degrees based on their marketability and an increased reliance across the state’s public institutions on fees to cover instructional costs in resource-intensive fields. It also resonates with the tendency of university spokespersons to cite the relative “affordability” of the UW compared to other public institutions that have moved farther down the high-tuition, high-aid road, most notably institutions such as the University of Michigan and Pennsylvania State University, where tuition is approaching $20,000 a year. This reasoning extends the budgetary logic of high tuition, high aid: Why not charge students who will make more money in their future careers more for their education? But it also echoes and, more important, evinces for students the truth of the neoliberal policy axiom that public institutions are best approached and assessed as (more or less efficient) means of delivering private goods in an increasingly unequal society. Students are repositioned as risk-managing, policy-making consumers, able to reward some institutions (and not others) through the use of their financial aid, student loans, or personal wealth as they seek value in the educational marketplace.

Possible Futures

These three interpretations are not mutually exclusive, of course. In countless meetings and forums over the past several years, I have heard them rehearsed and combined in innovative and repetitive ways. There is little doubt that in the future large and established institutions like the Seattle campus of the UW will continue to face pressure to become more efficient in their instructional delivery even as they maintain their existing organizational structure. This future is currently being scripted through the Seattle campus’s move to an activities-based budget model, with the goal of aligning financial decisions more closely with prioritized activities. Which activities will be assigned priority is a subject of much debate, but value will be determined at least in part by a unit’s ability to create revenue, either through external grants and gifts or through instructional load. Deployed this past year at the level of schools and colleges, activities-based budgeting has had little effect on existing programs since it has applied only to new revenues. Over the next several years, however, it will likely prioritize research agendas that are externally funded and curricula that are attractive to large numbers of students. The new budget model will secure the transition from a command economy in which the state determines educational policy to a market economy in which funders and students set policy through the choices they make as consumers.

At smaller and newer institutions like the Bothell campus of the UW, other futures may be possible. On the one hand, the move to a market-based model means that we will be able to make choices about the curricula we want to develop, the student body we want to build, and the research and teaching partnerships we want to create. We are, in this sense, freed from state oversight as we plan for future growth that aligns with our institutional mission. On the other hand, the market-based model also means that our success will be constrained by an increasingly competitive educational environment, by the lack of public funding for building and capital costs, and by the precarious political economy of financial aid and student debt. One warning about this future emerged at the moment in 2011 when the state announced its decision to cede control over the cost of higher education to individual institutions. The same major corporations that had lobbied successfully in 2010 against the ballot referendum that would have initiated a state income tax providing several billion dollars of funding for educational access and infrastructure garnered positive, front-page publicity by pledging to work with the state to create a $100 million fund to provide $1,000 scholarships for ten thousand students in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields. There is nothing wrong with small scholarships aimed at developing future employees. But they do nothing to solve the more general problem of educational access in an environment where tuition is rising by more than $1,000 annually for all students.

This public-private alliance signals a future in which such self-serving agreements could become the coin of the realm. Such a future would be a betrayal of the historical promise of public universities to innovate in ways that expand access to higher education. But this future also points back to one of the recurring policy lessons that emerged from the New Universities symposium. Given the rise of market-based models in educational policy circles, the threat of the current moment is that the economic stress public institutions are experiencing will lead them to jump at any partnership or initiative that promises new revenue, treating their mission to provide broad access to higher education as a luxury that is unaffordable in the current crisis. For public universities in states like Washington, this temptation to privatize may be particularly strong, especially if it is conceived as the only means of maintaining the status quo. The answer to this threat is neither to retreat from new possibilities nor to defend the status quo but to assess the value of old and new partnerships and initiatives wisely and with an eye always on the social-justice mission of the public university. We need to attend, in other words, to the reality of many students’ difficult lives, not the hubris of administrators and their difficult decisions.

Bruce Burgett is professor and director of interdisciplinary arts and sciences at the University of Washington Bothell. His e-mail address is bburgett@uwb.edu.

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