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opinion | Michael M. Crow and William B. Dabars

Public universities must operate at a higher level

Nina Cuneo for the Boston Globe

WhETHER BY design or default, the nation’s leading colleges and universities have become increasingly exclusive, as illustrated by the news last week that only 5.3 percent of those applying to Harvard’s Class of 2019 were accepted, a record low. Admissions figures released each spring serve to reinforce the prestige of top-tier research universities. But private institutions are by no means the only contributors to what has become an accelerating trend. High-ranking public universities — the so-called flagships, or public Ivies — are becoming equally selective. The result is that broad access to a world-class education is being denied to the majority of qualified applicants.

The 50 top liberal arts colleges, together with the Ivy League institutions, account for less than one percent of the nation’s undergraduate population. Adding the rest of the first-tier research universities gets us to a little more than 2 million — or about 11 percent — of US students. In a nation with 18.2 million undergraduates enrolled in some form of higher education — including 45 percent in community colleges and 10 percent in for-profit institutions — this suggests a problem.

From among roughly 5,000 colleges and universities, 108 major research universities determine the academic gold standard in American higher education. The education they provide contributes to the innovation that drives our nation’s economic competitiveness and benefits society. But if America is to remain competitive in the global economy, it needs more public research universities operating at this same level of excellence to offer greater accessibility to students. While nations worldwide are investing strategically to educate broader segments of their populations for the global knowledge economy, America’s educational infrastructure remains little changed from the mid-20th century, and is unable to accommodate projected enrollment demands.

Limited accessibility is not the only challenge confronting American research universities. To an alarming extent, these institutions are captive to a set of design constraints that no longer aligns with the needs of our society. Despite the critical niche that research universities occupy in the knowledge economy, they pursue their commitment to discovery and innovation largely in isolation from the socioeconomic challenges faced by most Americans. That isolation threatens to render these institutions incapable of contributing decisively to the collective good. In our new book, “Designing the New American University,” we consider the challenges facing these institutions and describe a new model that combines accessibility to research-grade universities, inclusiveness, and maximum impact on society.


Some research universities need to be redesigned to educate millions more qualified students, especially those whose socioeconomic backgrounds might otherwise put a college education out of reach. This will require institutional innovation, including creative use of learning technologies and, in many cases, strategic partnerships with like-minded organizations that bring additional resources.


As economists Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz have shown, public sector investment in higher education in the United States during the 20th century produced a level of educational attainment unmatched anywhere in the world. It served as a springboard to intergenerational economic mobility and catalyst to innovation and economic growth. Despite the success of this model, public investment in higher education has progressively declined. In a 2014 paper for the National Bureau of Economic Research, Robert J. Gordon found that, between 2001 and 2012, funding for higher education from states and municipalities fell by one-third when adjusted for inflation.

The discussion on higher education must not be limited to arbitrary goals for producing more college graduates. To remain globally competitive, the United States needs to produce in the next few years 3 million more college graduates with the skills needed to thrive in the new knowledge economy than the current system is designed to turn out.

College is not for everyone, but it should become a societal imperative to ensure that more than the top one percent, or even 10 percent, of qualified students have access to research-grade institutions that deliver world-class educations and advanced skills. Our nation must begin in earnest to restore historical levels of investment in our great public universities.


Just as important as funding will be the need for innovators in higher education to create organizational structures and goals that can be adapted to the unique challenges of the regions where they operate. Only by doing this will we maintain our potential to build a higher education infrastructure that is capable of properly educating the most academically qualified students in a way that is representative of the socioeconomic and intellectual diversity of our society.

Michael M. Crow is president of Arizona State University and founding chair of the University Innovation Alliance. William B. Dabars is senior research fellow in the office of the president at Arizona State. They are coauthors of “Designing the New American University.”


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Special section: The New U.