Thursday, October 01, 2009

Saving Public Universities

by Anthony Hennen

Joseph E. Aoun has an article concerned with saving public higher education. In it, he approves of the strong competition in the American system of higher education, but laments funding cuts to public universities, desiring a progressive tuition structure and revamping public university governance. But doesn’t that miss a better solution?

Wouldn’t the best actions to improve public education, and education in general, be to introduce as much competition as possible into public institutions? Forcing public colleges and universities to run more like businesses and with as little government intervention as possible would assuredly compel universities to make costs minimal and improve curriculum. Aoun recognizes how a decentralized system works more effectively: "The American system is decentralized, which allows for a diversity of approaches and a significant amount of experimentation and innovation. It also fosters healthy competition. Small schools compete with large schools; publics compete with privates; comprehensive universities compete with liberal arts colleges. And there is spirited competition within these groups."

Instead of universities continuously branching out and expanding, perhaps competition would shrink the size of a university by eliminating under-performing departments. A university should focus on doing certain things very well, not offering every major imaginable with only a few valuable departments. When a university stretches itself too thin, it inevitably has inefficiencies and, when it is a public institution, squanders more public money. Monthly, if not weekly, there seems to be a university president or politician lamenting the lack of funding for higher education. But maybe the lack of funding is not the entire problem. Maybe the problem is the distribution and use of the funding. Waste not, want not.

A new business model for higher education could take awhile and cause great change. But if it would make universities more efficient and improve education, and that would only be for the better.

Anthony Hennen is a student at Ohio University and a research associate of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity

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