Private colleges give students attention the publics can't

Pundits have been saying for decades that private colleges are due for a fundamental price restructuring, that online education, bargain-basement tuition prices for public universities and the efficiency of for-profit higher education will push private colleges out of the marketplace any day now.

And yet, despite the worst economy in over 60 years, enrollments at private colleges were at an all-time high this fall. How and why has this happened, when the economic environment seems ripe for the demise of relatively high-priced private colleges? John Ciardi, the late American poet and literary critic, once famously said, "A university is what a college becomes when faculty lose interest in students." While this is not literally true, it is easy to understand the feeling behind it, and it provides a glimpse of the answer to my question.

The "dirty little secret" of American higher education is that most public universities are not operated primarily to serve undergraduate students. Their priorities are driven by the ambitions of administrators and faculty, not by the needs of undergraduates, in which case research and graduate programs take precedence over undergraduates.

Every public university seems to want to be a research university, extending its mission into graduate programs and reducing seats and opportunities for undergraduate students. Public universities also claim that their mission includes economic development, which justifies launching new graduate programs, including medical schools, that the state can ill-afford, in the cause of creating jobs, albeit at considerable and continuing state expense. (The dubious economic calculations public universities make to support their claims of using state dollars to serve regional development are downright laughable.)

Most undergraduate teaching at public universities is provided by teachers who are not full-time professors. Rather, they are graduate students or part-time faculty. The relationship between full-time professors and undergraduates at these schools is rarely close; little or no mentoring or advising is provided.

The student-teacher ratio at many public universities is a scandal, even when counting part-time faculty: Ratios of 30 to 1 and even higher are common. Such ratios reveal a factory mentality and result in a factory environment rather than a school. It is common at many publics to teach even the most challenging courses — organic chemistry, for example — in large lecture halls, with little or no opportunity for student-faculty interaction. The result is unacceptable retention and graduation rates, which wastes the talent and intelligence of tens of thousands of students every year.

Even the most financially challenged public universities, however, seem to have well-financed football teams, often populated with students who graduate at appalling rates, to distract students and alumni from noticing that their institutions are only pretending to provide a substantive, transformational undergraduate education.

People who care about these and other shortcomings of public university education in the 21st century often send their sons and daughters to private liberal arts colleges, which by definition focus only on undergraduate education. As long as parents and students care about access to full-time faculty, small classes, personal attention by faculty and staff, and an institutional commitment to helping every single student who enrolls achieve academic and personal success — as long as parents and students care about such things, private colleges will stay in business.

It is true that the price of private liberal arts colleges is substantially higher than that of the publics. But the price is not the actual cost for the great majority of students. The average student at my college pays roughly half of the sticker price; the other half is covered through grants and institutional scholarships. Furthermore, both in Florida and nationally, private colleges enroll more minority and first generation college students than do public universities, and the average family income is less at the privates than the publics.

Of considerable financial consequence is the fact that 79 percent of all graduates from private institutions earn their bachelors degrees in four years or fewer, compared with 49 percent from public institutions. The cost to Florida of subsidizing a student at a public university is roughly $15,000 per year, while the subsidy for a student who goes to private college is roughly $2,500 per year. Many other states are a lot smarter than we are in Florida about saving state dollars by increasing the subsidy for students to go to privates: In Minnesota, for example, students can receive up to $11,000 — depending on need — to go to a private college in the state, which is still much cheaper than the state subsidy per seat for public universities.

The American public university was created by a wondrous combination of the German research tradition and the English undergraduate college tradition. Unfortunately, undergraduate education at many public universities has been relegated to second-class status.

Donald R. Eastman III is president of Eckerd College, a private liberal arts college in St. Petersburg.

Private colleges give students attention the publics can't 03/07/10 [Last modified: Sunday, March 7, 2010 3:30am]

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