Flagship University Vs. Local College

Across the nation, states have established flagship public universities to attract the nation’s best and brightest.  These institutions bring in the top faculty, establish academic centers of excellence, secure significant federal dollars in R&D, and recruit the top students in the nation.  All of this is done to ensure they can effectively compete with both the top public and private institutions, demonstrating a statewide commitment to education, innovation, and results.

These flagship institutions usually work in partnership with a network of public universities to ensure that the academic needs of the state are effectively met.  Regional demands, areas of specialty, and the downright luck of the draw ultimately determine which students end up where.  These variations allow institutions to build diverse student populations, diverse in terms of race, socioeconomic status, geography, interests, and backgrounds.
No university can serve every student.  There is a reason why the admission process is competitive, particularly for these flagship publics.  That’s what make them so desirable.  That’s what puts them at the top of the college rankings.  That’s what ensures the success of their graduates.  That’s what makes them truly competitive, impactful institutions.
And then legislators have to step in and try to screw it up.  Case in point — Virginia legislators and their most recent assault on Eduflack’s alma mater, the University of Virginia.  U.Va. is one of those flagship public universities, regularly rated the top public university in the nation.  Currently, 33 percent of U.Va.’s students come from out of state (a number not out of line with other leading public universities).  These out-of-state students often turn down offers from top private institutions — including the Ivies — to attend Mr. Jefferson’s University.  And they pay handsomely for it, with tuition far exceeding the cost of actually educating them (some estimating that they pay double the actual cost of the education received, to help subsidize the cost of educating in-state students).
Apparently, some believe the enrollment of out-of-staters is unfair to Virginia residents who do not get into U.Va., and must instead settle for Virginia Tech, James Madison, George Mason, and other Virginia state universities.  So much so that legislators are now seeking to halve the number of out-of-state students at institutions like U.Va. to make more spots available to in-state students.  Fellow U.Va./Cavalier Daily alum and WaPo reporter Anita Kumar has the full story this morning — www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/02/23/AR2009022302641.html?hpid=topnews  
I can understand the frustration students have not getting into their first choice college.  You work hard (or mostly hard) for four years of high school.  You get stellar grades.  You do well on the SAT or ACT.  You believe the world should be your oyster.  You believe you are entitled to go to the college of your choice, particularly if it is an in-state school.
And it is logical for an uninformed state legislator to see the reasoning in that logic, and call for the state to slash the number of out-of-state students and offer more slots to in-state student.  Logical, that is, until you really get in under the hood of how institutions like U.Va. operate.  
Currently, the University of Virginia receives less than eight percent of its operating expenses from the state.  That means those legislators are providing fewer than eight cents on the education dollar to provide a University of Virginia education.  The rest of the funds are provided through tuition (a disproportionate amount coming from those “despised” out-of-state students), donations from alumni (a great number of whom were once those out-of-state students), and other funding sources.  
I’ll admit it, I was one of those dreaded out-of-state students at Mr. Jefferson’s University.  As a graduate of the public schools in West Virginia, i found U.Va. to be the ideal college for me the first moment I set foot on grounds, offering opportunities I simply couldn’t find in my home state.  I ultimately chose it over Princeton University, buying into everything about the academical village.  I watched as costs rose from 113% of my actual education my first year to well over 150% by fourth year.  These were during the harshest of SCHEV battles, and it made me appreciate what I was getting even more.  So this is personal for Eduflack.
If legislators want to deny out-of-state students, that is definitely their prerogative.  But they need to be prepared for the impact.  Slashing out-of-state students means a significant cut in operating costs, particularly if it is not offset by real increases in in-state tuition (and yes, if you want to keep academic standards and faculty, and the state can’t increase its support, the only choice is tuition increases.  Gone will be the times where you can just jack up out-of-state rates to make up the difference).  Alums like me will likely choose to reduce their contributions to the College Fund and other operating funds, believing that students like them are no longer being served by the institution.  And yes, U.Va. will quickly drop in the national rankings, due to lower SAT scores, lower budgets, and lower recognition from peer institutions.  Don’t believe me?  Just take a look at how the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill fell in the rankings after it capped out-of-state enrollments.
Personally, I would love to see U.Va. President John Casteen counter with an offer to refuse the 7-plus percent of funding coming in from the state, ridding the institution of many of the oversight and red tape that comes from the Commonwealth.  Of course, U.Va. would still remain a public flagship, but it would also exert its independence and leadership in higher education.  It would definitely be a Jeffersonian thing to do.
But I am also concerned with the larger implications of targeting U.Va.  The University is an easy target, based on its elitist perceptions, it prominent image, and its sizable budgets.  But it is far from being the largest public university in Virginia.  It may be flagship, but it relatively modest when it comes to institutional size, both by in-state and out-of-state comparisons.  Yes, it had a clear target on its back during those SCHEV years and its battles with Governor Wilder, and it remains a target today, particularly as it is in the middle of a highly ambitious $3 billion capital campaign.
These legislative “considerations” create the impression that public education at Virginia Tech or George Mason or William & Mary or VCU is somehow lacking by comparison.  Stating that a student couldn’t get in to U.Va. and had to “settle” for another public university is a slap at the number of fine public institutions in Virginia.  We should be recognizing the uniqueness of our institutions and identifying regional centers of excellence that allow each of our major universities to shine.  Not every Virginian needs to spend four years in C-Ville to succeed.  And in many cases, better educations and better opportunities can be found across the network of Virginia higher education.
More importantly, though, such legislative interventions put us down a dangerously slippery slope.  With U.Va., the issue is that some students in Northern Virginia  — home to some of the nation’s top high schools and competitive students —  don’t gain admission into the University.  Parents and kids alike believe that is unfair, and blame lack of admittance on those out-of-state students.  Even if those out-of-state students have higher grades, higher test s
cores, and stronger resumes, they are taking slots from over-achievers in NoVa.
What happens when U.Va. reduces its out-of-state pool, and we turn our attention to the disproportionate number of in-state students coming from Northern Virginia.  Do we need special intercessions to increase enrollment of students from Southwest Virginia or Norfolk or Richmond?  Will NoVa students simply become the next generation of those dreaded out-of-state students?  It isn’t as silly as it may sound.
But I greatly digress.  The greatness of public flagship universities is the diversity of its students.  Such diversity prepares students for life after college, challenging them to work harder and do better.  And that diversity includes students from other states and other nations.  If we are to sustain truly excellent higher education in Virginia, we should be raising standards and asking more of our students.  The question shouldn’t be how to reduce the out-of-state student pool, it should be how do we raise in-state student achievement and performance so our residents are outperforming those kids from New Jersey and Pennsylvania that  we seem so fearful of.  We should be doing better, not changing the game to make our standards look better than those next to us.

132 thoughts on “Flagship University Vs. Local College

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