The image of American higher education is largely shaped by popular culture through the handful of colleges that appear in the movies, in the news, or in nationally televised football games on Saturdays in the fall.
Yet there are some 5,300 colleges and universities in the United States, from beauty schools to Harvard. Harvard itself enrolls just more than one tenth of one percent of college students in the United States, although you wouldn’t know that from the outsized media coverage it receives. Take all of the undergraduates in the Ivy League’s eight schools and they still account for less than one half of one percent of students in American higher education.
A recent article in The Washington Post told the important story of how states are getting out of the business of public higher education by focusing on how students these days are paying more of the cost at state universities through their rising tuition bills. But even the image of public universities is largely shaped by the big brand names that tend to dominate elite college athletics: Ohio State, Alabama, Michigan, Florida State, Oregon, and Texas, among others.
We rarely hear about places like Frostburg State University, Central Michigan University, or Eastern Washington University, so-called regional public universities that got their start in the early 1900s as “normal schools” to train teachers. During the past century, as enrollment in higher education grew, these schools added undergraduate and graduate programs to respond to the shifting workforce and changed their names several times to eventually become universities.
Today, 40 percent of all undergraduates in the United States attend regional public colleges. There are nearly 400 of them, many tucked into out-of-the-way corners of their states. By comparison, the better-known public flagship universities enroll just 20 percent of students.
Regional public colleges are often referred to as the “undistinguished middle child of higher education,” squeezed on one side by community colleges and on the other by flagship universities. To stand out, their administrators and faculty have tried to remake them in the image of campuses where they were trained, mostly private colleges or large state schools.
That’s why they added a bevy of graduate programs and spent needless dollars on fancy campus amenities and athletics teams.
As regional public universities expanded, they ended up filling their seats with students who in earlier years would have started at community colleges. As a result, they had to offer more remedial classes, and the number of students who dropped out ballooned, harming their reputations.
Now many regional public colleges are struggling to survive.
In half of the states, students at public universities pay more toward the cost of their education than the state does (in 2000, that was true in just three states). State flagship universities made up for the reduction of taxpayer funds by increasing tuition, often by much more than what they actually lost in state dollars since 2007. But tuition at regional publics was barely able to keep pace with state budget cuts during the same time period, according to an analysis by Alisa Hicklin Fryar at the University of Oklahoma.
Unlike their flagship counterparts, regional public universities can’t as easily rely on private donations, big research grants, or higher-paying out-of-state students to make up for what the state cut in funding. In the Northeast and Midwest, declining numbers of high-school graduates means that many regional schools can’t even fill their classes. And now, President Obama’s proposal to make community college free further threatens to drain federal and state dollars from the coffers of regional public institutions.
For regional public universities to survive, a handful states in the Northeast and Midwest need fewer of them. But it’s often impossible to merge or close these colleges because they have strong political support in state legislatures given the schools are often the largest local employer.
In absence of that option, these colleges need to pare back the graduate programs they added during the past two decades to better compete with the flagship universities — programs that are really mediocre at best and swallow up precious resources. For example, since 1990, 100 regional public universities added a graduate degree in parks, recreation, and fitness, according to Fryar at the University of Oklahoma. More than 50 schools added graduate degrees in business, education, and public administration.
Instead, these regional public colleges should differentiate themselves from the bigger public flagships with lower-cost bachelor’s degrees and focus on improving undergraduate education by responding to local workforce needs. These regional colleges might not get all the attention of elite private colleges or flagship public universities, but they serve an important middle market for students and their families who need such basic choices as the cost of college spirals ever upward.