Tuesday, January 13, 2009

The Price of University Hubris

By Richard Vedder

I am currently in Illinois and read in the local paper that Southern Illinois University (SIU) wants to admit out-of-state students from neighboring states and charge them in-state tuition rates, in order to battle falling enrollment. This story is rich in irony and lessons for ambitious universities below the top tier.

For decades, SIU has had an inferiority complex that it has tried to overcome by aggressive expansion. A former president (Morris) tried to follow the Michigan State model of John Hannah from the 1950s and 1960s, by attempting to turn a sleepy secondary college into a major university. Illinois already has two schools in the top 10 of the forbes.com (and CCAP) rankings of national universities, Northwestern and Chicago, and one of the great state universities in the top 25 in the US NEWS public university rankings, the University of Illinois.

In recent years, SIU has jacked its tuition up enormously under ambitious presidents trying to take the school to "the next highest level." A reporter for the student paper called me a couple of years ago and related how the school had an ambitious plan to ascend to the ranks of the great research universities, and high tuition fees were needed to help fund the effort.

A funny thing happened along the way (aside from some top administrators of the university leaving, apparently under some duress): enrollments started falling. SIU has fewer students than it did in 1990. Demand for tier three (US News rankings) schools is somewhat price-elastic --if SIU gets too costly, kids will go to Eastern Illinois, Western Illinois, Illinois State University or a variety of other schools, both private and public. Meanwhile, SIU has not ascended to the top ranks, as the number of top-notch scholars wanting to move to Carbondale, Illinois is, shall we say, highly finite.

Now with the pool of 18 to 22 year olds starting to fall, SIU is facing a big problem --not enough students. Located in a low income area with relatively high tuition fees, the school has gone from seeking to rival the U. of Illinois in the national rankings, to trying to maintain an adequate enrollment base so that it can maintain the pretense that it is a serious comprehensive university.

The SIU experience, with variations, is being repeated all over the country. Everyone wants to reach the next highest level --by spending more money. There can only be 50 schools in the top 50. SIU will never, at least not before 2040, catch up with Chicago, Northwestern, or Illinois. My university, Ohio University, will not catch Ohio State. North Texas State will not catch the University of Texas or Texas A&M. And so it goes. Nor will football success achieve what cannot be reached academically.

To be sure, I wish there was MORE movement up and down in university rankings and the success and failure of schools. But until we measure outcomes better, that will not happen. Meanwhile, the SIU tale of how institutional hubris can have unintended consequences is one that many university presidents should heed.


Lenny said...

In the past, I've been rather critical of many of Dr. Vedder ideas and prescriptions for higher education in my posts here. This column, however, is outstanding and hits directly at one of the most destructive and wasteful aspects of public higher education: the belief on the part of the regional state schools that if they're only given enough time and allowed to siphon enough funds away from the state flagships that they too can hit the big time.

In Ohio, one finds the situation compounded as the regional publics delusions of grandeur are only fueled by the competitive, city-state nature of the Ohio politics in which the driving mentality seems to be, "if it can't be in my city, then the state shouldn't have it."

Spot on, Vedder. Spot on.

right-wing prof said...

This sounds very similar to what is going on at the University of Toledo. The president and the deans keep coming out with statements about turning it into a world-class university, which they plan to accomplish by specialising in extremely narrow fields and spending big bucks to get world leaders in these areas to come to Toledo. They don't seem to understand that they have a role to play within the entire state system and it is not to be a world-class research university.

capeman said...

Ah, places like SIU extend their reach too far, they get hit in the face. The system is working! Nothing to get upset about.

capeman said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Lenny said...

Gee, right-wing prof. I thought that Ohio was the Lake Wobegon of higher education where all the universities are above average and an AAU invite is just around the corner if they could just add a few more doctoral programs.

You think Toledo has delusions of grandeur? You should hear some of the nonsense coming out of that clown Proenza's mouth up in Akron.

I have to admire Strickland and Fingerhut for tyring to reign in this nonsense and bring a little order and structure to the university system. I don't, however, envy their task. That's a lot of toothpaste to put back in the tube since Jim Rhodes and John Millett made such a mess of things back in the sixties.