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Feed It Or Starve It? Higher Education Funding in Colorado and Beyond

By nearly every measure, the citizens of Colorado provide less funding to their higher education system than most other states. This fact is sometimes embarrassing for someone who has devoted his career to higher education to see how little it seems to be valued.

Then again, what’s to value? As an editorial in last Saturday’s Rocky Mountain News (one of two Denver newspapers of record) pointed out, the funding crunch has not led higher education institutions in Colorado to restructure, revamp, or retool. They have not become more efficient nor more effective then in the past, when the state budget was more generous to our state-funded colleges and universities.

There has been little (and usually no) talk of restructuring, or ramping up productivity, of eliminating marginal or duplicative enterprises or programs. There is little talk of doing things differently.
In an era of transforming change in many private industries and even such huge sectors as health care—an era when such normally risk-resistant public entities as urban school districts are actually restructuring themselves—higher education seems a universe apart. And not only in Colorado. Across the nation, despite costs that in most years have escalated faster than inflation, higher ed’s message remains mostly a one-word mantra: more.
Apparently the present model by which universities organize themselves and deliver services is optimal. Among this nation’s major institutions, they alone have seemingly found the sweet spot from which they must never budge. Or at least that is the impression they often give outsiders.>

The News could have gone on to say that some of the greatest innovation, the best education, and the best values in education actually are in our private colleges and universities. While there are a few “public Ivies” (Michigan, Virginia, North Carolina, Berkeley, to name a few), some of our largest, most expensive public universities are nothing more than massive education factories, with enormous class sizes, little educational supervision, low academic standards, and poor retention and graduation rates.

That universities abhor making decisions to eliminate “marginal or duplicative enterprises or programs” is clear. Why does Colorado Mountain College, for example, have three residential campuses? Why must Metropolitan State College of Denver, which is primarily a commuter college, have NCAA competitive teams? Why do we have decent undergraduate music programs in this state at Fort Lewis College, University of Colorado-Boulder, and University of Northern Colorado? Do taxpayers need to support all three? Do we really need more than one or two universities in Colorado that offer Ph.D. programs in the humanities or social sciences?

And who makes the decisions in academia? One could argue that no one makes any decisions. But in fact, the monkeys run the academic zoo. Professors become department heads and deans and provosts and presidents. Scholars prefer ideas to action. They value the life of the mind, and enjoy using other people’s money to fund their pastime. They are not managers. Outside of business school professors, most professors do not have any training or experience in running an enterprise, delivering value, or earning profits (I know because I was one of the monkeys, not so very long ago). Their decision-making models are collaborative, not hierarchical. Decisions are referred to endless committees, and management structures make the Federal Government seem streamlined and efficient by comparison.

One of the problems is that neither the public, nor the higher education institutions themselves, really debate whether we should try to be excellent in every discipline, or whether we should focus public dollars in areas where the public good is more easily discernable. Is it, for example, a “public good” to fund a comparative literature department to award doctorates to experts on Proust? Is that “good” equivalent to the “good” of funding medical research? Or is it publicly-gooder to provide general education courses and actually teach our next generation? One can argue that these are all “good”. But which more compellingly embodies the public interests? While I did read Proust in college (a private one, I hasten to add), and I love good literature, I would say that Colorado could do without a doctoral program in comparative literature. Them that wants Proust can go to a private college.

Regardless of my opinion, why aren’t we having these discussions, as a public? It’s clear that the leaders of higher education in Colorado are refusing to engage in these tough choices. As the Rocky says, all the universities want is more, more, more.

No more.

Frankly, state legislatures across America are right to put the screws to our public system of higher education, especially to our four-year, comprehensive, public universities. (As an aside, I actually think our two-year colleges are much more efficient and lean and effective, and they respond much more nimbly to market demands, generally speaking, than four-year institutions). Without significant external pressure, without increased demands for accountability, without meaningful measures of quality and effectiveness, our public higher education system will remained mired in the Middle Ages.

Let them compete in the marketplace, just as our excellent private colleges and universities do. Heck, professors in private institutions are no less steeped in the life of the mind than their peers in public institutions. Let professors compete individually for grants and contracts and sponsored research. Let them demonstrate the value of their educational services. Would Adams State and Western State survive if it were not for state funding? Do we really need comprehensive universities—with Master’s and doctoral programs—in both Colorado Springs (UCCS) and Pueblo (CSU-Pueblo)? Heck, I could argue that we could completely eliminate most doctoral programs in the humanities and social sciences in Colorado, and be no worse off educationally or economically speaking than we are today. (Pick up any issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education if you don’t believe that his country has a surplus of boneheads with doctorates—yours truly among them!)

However, if there are particular public goods that we, as a citizenry, feel are necessary to support, then let the taxpayers put up the money and let the state institutions (or maybe even the private ones! ack! heresy!) compete for it. Which among them has the best proposal? Which is better qualified to pursue the research or carry out the program? Don’t just dole out money to each institution just because it somehow deserves to exist.

My advice to Colorado college presidents: ask not for what you think you deserve, but for what you clearly merit.

Mark Montgomery
Higher Education Policy Wonk
Montgomery Educational Consulting

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