What public universities must do to regain public support

Universities have lost public support in recent years. In order to get it back, college presidents should worry less about how their institutions fare in college rankings and focus more on affordability, great teaching and doing research that matters most to the communities they serve.

Those are among the key recommendations that various stakeholders make in the newly released book “Land-Grant Universities for the Future: Higher Education for the Public Good.”

The book comes at a time when an increasing number of Americans – mostly Republicans – have lost confidence in higher education. For instance, a 2017 Gallup survey found that while 56 percent of Democrats and Democratic-leaning individuals had a great deal or a lot of confidence in higher education, only 33 percent of Republican or Republican-leaning individuals did.

For the “Land-Grant Universities for the Future” book, my co-author – West Virginia University president E. Gordon Gee – and I interviewed 27 presidents and chancellors about the current issues facing public universities. Several themes arose.

We then ran those themes past people who work outside of a university but who still have an interest in higher education, such as lawmakers, college accreditors and community leaders.

Unlike the university presidents, many of whom noted the pressure they were under to maintain or increase their stature in U.S. News and World Report and other lists, stakeholders weren’t concerned with how well a university did in college rankings. Instead, they were concerned with how well the institution was serving the public. Here’s a portion of what they recommended.

1. Demonstrate efficiency

Before university leaders ask for more state support, they must demonstrate that they are being more efficient with the funding they currently get. Those universities leading the way on this front – including exemplars such as the University of Wisconsin system and The Ohio State University – are directly connecting savings gained from lower operational costs with noticeable reductions in the cost of attending college. In fact, Ohio and Wisconsin were ranked No. 1 and No. 9, respectively, in lowest tuition increases over the last decade.