Publics in Distress

America’s big public research universities are having a tough time of it lately, and it’s not just in their athletic programs. Fundamentally, they are being squeezed by the Great Recession hitting state budgets and parents’ tuition savings accounts at the same time.  Whether sequestration happens or not, Federal R&D is likely to trend downwards for some time, and this will have an enormous effect on the economic engine of research that Vannevar Bush envisioned, and subsequently architected,  mid-20th century.

Fundraising is being hurt, not only because of some very high profile PR disasters, but also simply because donors are holding on to their money in times of uncertainty. While the elite privates can count on enormous endowments to carry them through, the publics are, to a large extent (and with some notable exceptions) much more dependent on state support and tuition.

What to do? Who is the lender of last resort for America’s public research universities?

Increasingly the answer to that question is either out of state or overseas. Out of state students pay “full freight” or even premium rates and their recruitment potentially can subsidize the publics as they are being squeezed within their states. Of course, without growth, those are classroom seats that are no longer available for in state students. Which brings up the question of the core purpose of public education: to provide quality higher education for in state students. Or is it: to conduct excellent sponsored research? Or some mixture of both?

We live in very interesting times.