American public universities traditionally offer two very different prices for students: one for those coming from other states, and a much cheaper one for those who live in-state. Is it possible to consider another model, a scenario where campuses end in-state discounts?
Jan Murphy argues, provocatively, that Pennsylvania might be about to experiment with such an approach. It might not be deliberate, but the outcome of intense state budget battles. Harrisburg is behind schedule and still fighting over finances. Penn State is already under the gun, and might take an unusual step over the next few months:
“We feel the threat is truly there that unlike in previous years, we might not get funded at all,” said Zack Moore, Penn State’s vice president for government and community relations. “We set our budget in July with the assumption that we were going to get a certain amount of funding from the state. For them to potentially not follow through on that really puts us in a bind and has us incredibly nervous.”
It has Penn State contemplating the possibility of raising tuition as early as the spring semester. (emphases added)
Which would be rough, especially for the poorest students. But it’s small potatoes compared to what else is on offer. If the state can’t provide funding in time, perhaps public universities will have to break with history and their public mission. Imagine this scenario: “Zack Moore, Penn State’s vice president for government and community relations… said without a state appropriation, he can’t imagine Penn State would continue to differentiate its tuition for in-state and out-of-state students.” More:
Without any revenue from the state to fund Penn State, Pitt, Temple and Lincoln universities, officials from three of the four universities say they will be forced to end the tuition discount they offer to Pennsylvania students. At Penn State, for example, that tuition reduction saves students about $10,500, university officials say.
This sounds like provocation, pitching a negative scenario in order to goad Harrisburg into actually committing funding. But the idea is out there, and at least one leading state politician thinks such a model is feasible:
Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Centre County, called the potential divestiture of the four state-related institutions “a profound policy decision that I think will have significant consequences the people of Pennsylvania will not enjoy.” [and yet…]
Although the flagship campus of Penn State sits in his district, he said he isn’t worried about the economic impact of not providing state funding to the university would have on that region. Students will still attend University Park but they might be wealthier or come from out of state or other countries.
Is this even possible?
It might be. In a sense, public universities and colleges across the country have been doing a version of this for years. It is well known that they already seek out non-local students because of their higher payments, among other reasons. As Aaron Renn recently observed,
Foreign students from places like China are now aggressively recruited to universities like Illinois, in part because they are paying very high rack rates with cash. Indiana University, my alma mater, was largely populated with working and middle class Hoosiers and some Chicago suburbanites when I went there. Today it has a much more upscale vibe and has become a destination for East Coast kids who can’t get into the Ivies. (“From Bloomingdale’s to Bloomington” as the Journal once quipped).
Indeed, this strategy is so strongly conducted that several state legislatures (California comes to mind) have fought with their universities to get them to recruit more in-state students for political, not economic reasons.
Moreover, as Chris Newfield and others have amply documented, American states have gradually reduced their per-student support to higher education over the past generation. This defunding has helped drive that aggressive recruitment of out-of-state students. Campuses seeing themselves as being involuntarily privatized might have to think seriously about acting as if they were private, and market themselves accordingly. Alternatively, states might have to zero out funding, as Mike Richichi remarks.
For some the freedom to recruit without geographic restriction could let them pursue an upscaling strategy, going after students with higher test scores. Jon Marcus points to such a desire within midwestern publics.
If one state alone did this, its non-rich students would either have to expand their borrowing, or seek out alternative colleges and universities. Community colleges might see a new student influx. Other students could send themselves to other states’ schools, either in person or online. Indeed, this could further boost online learning numbers.
If a plurality of states follow this scenario, I could imagine average tuition going up (even further) nationwide. Perhaps states will diverge between pro- and non-local student support. Inter-state recruitment efforts will surely rise.
Some state governments might oppose this model, and seek legislative means to compel universities to focus on local students, with or without sufficient funding. Campuses might decided to go independent at this point and jettison their public identity.
At a conceptual level, a scenario wherein public universities end in-state tuition breaks would represent a furthering of the belief that education is a private, not public good. It would indicate another tick forward for neoliberalism’s progress. Resisting this model might imply the opposite, the old idea that post-secondary education is a common good, benefitting the entire population.
Perhaps we’ll see a reshuffling of the overall stratification of American higher ed, with formerly public universities joining private institutions, separated from the world of community colleges.
Is any of this possible?
(thanks to Jeff Selingo and Steven Kaye)