Study: Public Universities in Peril

State funding for public research universities plummeted by 20 percent in the last decade, says a study released today by the National Science Board.

The study paints a dark picture for the future of public universities—and points to a growing financial gap between public schools and their wealthier private counterparts.

The study highlights two ways in which state schools have fallen behind the privates: spending per student and the salary gap. While state schools increased per-student spending by 10 percent over the last decade, private schools upped that number by 25 percent. And from 2002-09, private universities increased faculty pay by 0.6 percent, while public universities managed an even more meager 0.2 percent.

Flagship public universities like UT are “stuck between two worlds,” noted the Associated Press today. Although UT is nationally competitive in terms of students, funding, and research output, the University’s finances are still largely determined by the cash-strapped state.

Ray Bowen, past president of Texas A&M, told the AP that cuts to public universities also hurt local and regional economies. “You go to Austin, Texas (home of the University of Texas), that city is a vibrant economic environment because of that university, because of the bright people it produces and the faculty research that takes place,” Bowen said.

UT professor Jeremi Suri, who holds joint appointments in the LBJ School of Public Affairs and the Department of History, agrees. “We already know that public higher education is in a serious crisis,” Suri says, “but what’s new in this study is the evidence that it’s very systemic. It’s not just Texas.”

Suri adds that, historically, moments of crisis often lead to opportunity—and he hopes this crisis will offer UT a chance to grow. “We’re at a moment of systematic crisis, but this is also a classic opportunity for us to become an industry leader,” he says. “Texas is not without its troubles, but it’s better off than many other states, and UT is in a stronger position than others, such as UVa.”

Meanwhile, enrollment continues to rise. The number of students at public universities increased by 17 percent from 1994-2009, according to the study. In the face of a stark financial reality, universities are struggling to do more with less. As for UT’s funding, keep watching—the Texas Legislature will take up the topic when it goes into session in January.

Illustration by David Pearson on Flickr.


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