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Publics and Privates

Publics and Privates

It’s widely acknowledged that the boundaries between public and private universities blur increasingly. The most obvious movement results from that steady reduction of state support in the public domain. The schools involved turn more and more to private fundraising, tuition increases, (though some differences remain in this category), and other devices long familiar to the private domain. They may face some distinctive challenges – though a lament I heard a decade ago from local donors, that they would not give until the state “stepped up,” has dropped off as realization of the publics’ plight takes hold. But the differences are far less great than they once were.

For their part, privates have long sought access to the public purse. They seek federal scholarship and loan support, with rare principled exceptions. The feds are fairly even handed, imposing the same rules concerning student access and research requirements on both groups of schools. And accreditation impositions cut across the categories, varying only by region. The only issue that has emerged involves the federal relationship to the for-profit category of privates, which is belatedly under review.

Less often discussed is the partial fudging of the private category at the state level, at least in units such as Virginia. Not surprisingly, private units, facing their own growing challenges, are eager for the state to help out, for example with scholarships to students that can be taken to the private venues. The state is tempted to oblige. After all, the privates are an asset. Helping them stay afloat might cost less than providing equivalent slots in outright public institutions. And regional legislators may well back their local private as a means of bringing home some public bacon. Motives are mixed, and policy complications inevitably result. Currently, on top of the state student grants, a new higher education initiative seeks to represent the privates on a new higher education advisory board for the Commonwealth, that will be charged with making decisions about budget allocations and reporting requirements presumably mainly for the public system. The blurring continues.

The obvious question – not yet addressed, to my knowledge – focuses on whether regulatory exactions should now blur a bit as well. Again, accreditation cuts across the divide. But publics are subjected to a number of state requirements, including periodic constraints on tuition policy, from which the privates are exempt. The state takes little or no responsibility for checking on issues of partisanship, or religious preference, or quality of offerings for the private sector – all of which is well and good if the privates are private. But when the privates tap the public purse, an extension of some oversight might be an appropriate concomitant. The issues are difficult, but they may merit more discussion than has thus far occurred.

As for the publics, the joke that began circulating a decade ago rings distressingly true, as the institutions move from being state institutions, to state aided, to state located and now, sometimes, simply state-impeded. But perhaps if the economic winds turn, this may change a bit for the better; we’ll see.