Are Public Universities Still Public?

The recent firing of the president of the University of Virginia brought that public university into the national spotlight. But on Thursday, the Commonwealth of Virginia contributes only seven percent of the university's budget. Many other public universities receive similarly small percentages of their funding from state budgets, which raises the question — how public are our public universities? Robert Siegel talks to Eric Kelderman, reporter for The Chronicle of Higher Education.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

How public are our public universities? The recent firing of the president of the University of Virginia prompts that question. U.Va., founded by Thomas Jefferson, is a public university. But nowadays, the Commonwealth of Virginia contributes only 6 percent of the university's overall budget.

Well, joining us now is Eric Kelderman, whose beat is state higher-education policy, for the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Welcome.

ERIC KELDERMAN: Thank you, Mr. Siegel.

SIEGEL: And first, 6 percent sounds like a pretty small minority stake in a state university. Is Virginia an outlier?

KELDERMAN: I would say that yes, Virginia is an outlier. But the overall trend has been that states, in general, have contributed less to public higher education - certainly, since the economic downturn.

SIEGEL: And I gather that if we look back, say 20 years ago, to the state's share of University of Virginia funds, it was a lot bigger than 6 percent.

KELDERMAN: You know, I would say nationally what a lot of folks point to - as that, say, 30 or 40 years ago, states used to contribute about three-quarters of the amount of a university's budget. Now it's down to, say, a quarter or less, in many cases.

SIEGEL: Well, tell us some figures for some big public universities that we've all heard of.

KELDERMAN: I would think that the three most stark examples of this would be, along with the University of Virginia - might be, say, the University of Michigan, which is also in single digits. Around 7 percent of its money comes from the state. And the University of Colorado, which has a - is in a similar range.

What's often helpful is to look at the percent of education that students are paying in tuition versus the state. So, for instance, in the Northeast, in New Hampshire and Vermont, students might be paying, say, three-quarters to almost 90 percent of their educational costs. Now, in part, this is because the state has to recruit a lot of out-of-state students, which tend to pay higher tuition and so they become sort of, on paper, almost private colleges, in a way.

SIEGEL: And if we were to look for universities that are public universities, and there really is a lion's share of the funding coming from the state, is there any place where you would point us to, or what kind of university we'd look for?

KELDERMAN: Sure. You know, oddly, these are places like Montana and Wyoming; where because the state revenues have been relatively robust because of oil and gas production, and because of their conservative budgeting over a very long time, universities there tend to get much more - say, two-thirds or so - of their money from the state.

SIEGEL: I mean, some of these numbers, if you're really down in the single digits, the state support from the state that bears - the name of your university, could be comparable to the federal support that private universities are getting. It just isn't that dramatic an amount of money, at some point.

KELDERMAN: No. And what's sort of odd about the situation is that even though states contribute, in many cases, you know, a small percentage of the overall funds that the university receives, that the state has not necessarily decreased the amount of regulation that they provide to these institutions.

SIEGEL: That's what I was going to ask you about. There is this other side to being a public university - which is, you could be governed by a board of trustees or visitors, who are gubernatorial appointees or people confirmed by the state legislature. A state legislative committee might ask questions about how the university runs. Your professors might be in a state pension system. That degree of state governance - that has not lessened dramatically with the great shift downward in state funds?

KELDERMAN: There has been some move towards that. And in fact, Virginia would be another example of this - where it's happened - where the University of Virginia, and a couple of other prominent universities in the state, have sort of struck a deal with Virginia, saying, we'll live up to these performance measures if you give us some less regulation. And at the same time, we're willing to accept slightly less money because we think we can be more efficient with less regulation.

SIEGEL: Have there been examples of public universities rethinking their public-ness, generally, and saying, you know, maybe we should just become a private university?

KELDERMAN: That debate has gone on. You haven't seen anybody that's made that decision. And in part, it's complicated by a number of situations. In Colorado, for instance, the public universities are in the state constitution. And so they couldn't necessarily become private without changing the state constitution. And very often, the land and the buildings, and other facilities that are part of the university, belong to the state.

SIEGEL: Eric Kelderman, thanks for talking with us.

KELDERMAN: It's been my pleasure. Thank you.

SIEGEL: Eric Kelderman's beat is state higher-education policy. He writes for the Chronicle of Higher Education.

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