December 20, 2006
Vying for Top 10 in Academic Rank
By TAMAR LEWIN
GAINESVILLE, Fla. — If there is any goal that the University of Florida
has pursued as fervently as a national football championship for the Gators, it is a place among the nation’s highest-ranked public universities.
“We need a top-10 university, so our kids can get the same education they would get at Harvard
,” said J. Bernard Machen, the university president.
To upgrade the university, Dr. Machen is seeking a $1,000 tuition surcharge that would be used mostly to hire more professors and lower the student-faculty ratio, not coincidentally one of the factors in the much-watched college rankings published annually by U.S. News & World Report. This year, that list ranked Florida 13th among public universities in the United States.
Like Florida, more leading public universities are striving for national status and drawing increasingly impressive and increasingly affluent students, sometimes using financial aid to lure them. In the process, critics say, many are losing force as engines of social mobility, shortchanging low-income and minority students, who are seriously underrepresented on their campuses.
“Public universities were created to make excellence available to all qualified students,” said Kati Haycock, director of the Education Trust, an advocacy group, “but that commitment appears to have diminished over time, as they choose to use their resources to try to push up their rankings. It’s all about reputation, selectivity and ranking, instead of about the mission of finding and educating future leaders from their state.”
While a handful of public universities have long stood among the nation’s top institutions — the University of California
, Berkeley, and the University of Michigan
among them — many have only recently joined their ranks.
At some of the best public universities, selectivity is up: at the University of Florida, the average student high school grade point average now exceeds 4.0, a feat achievable only with high grades in honors or Advanced Placement classes. And student interest in these institutions is soaring. At the University of Vermont
, where three quarters of the freshmen come from other states, applications have more than doubled since 2001.
The demands on such universities are growing, too, particularly with many states questioning their spending on higher education. Increasingly, these colleges are expected to bolster their states’ economies by attracting research grants and jobs. To do that, they say, they must compete with elite private universities.
So the universities face a tough balancing act: should they push for higher status and higher tuition revenue by accepting more top-achieving, out-of-state students, or should they worry about broadening access for low-income, in-state students? Is their primary goal to serve the people of their state or to compete nationally with private research universities? Can they leave the less prestigious state colleges to serve the bulk of in-state students?
“It is increasingly challenging to manage all of those inherently conflicting goals,” said Mark A. Emmert, president of the University of Washington
, adding that global competitiveness required world-class scholarship: “When we think about our peers now, we don’t just think about the publics, we throw in Stanford and the Ivies.”
In some ways, the University of Washington outdoes its peers. Dr. Emmert says proudly that his university is second only to Harvard in research financing from the National Institutes of Health
In certain respects, flagship public universities have become more like private institutions. Public universities are still far less expensive, but with their tuition rising rapidly, enrolling low-income students has become as much an issue for them as it is for private universities.
From 1995 to 2003, flagship and leading public research universities quadrupled their aid to students from families with incomes over $100,000, while aid to students from the poorest families declined, according to the Education Trust. The best public universities, the group said, have come to resemble “gated communities of higher education.”
And their aid policies are paramount, because aid given by the universities dwarfs what students get from the federal government.
“The rise in the quality of public flagships across the country is in principle a good thing,” said William E. Kirwan, chancellor of the University System of Maryland. “What’s begun to cross the line, though, is when in the pursuit of excellence, our financial aid gets distorted in a way that high-achieving, low-income students who are qualified to go to our best public institutions can’t.”
In an implicit recognition of this distortion, several public universities have started programs to help low-income students.
The Carolina Covenant at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill was the first such program. Started in 2004, it guaranteed low-income students enough aid to graduate debt-free.
This year about 8 percent of the freshman class qualified, in the process helping diversify the student body, which for the first time is less than 70 percent white.
The University of Virginia
followed with a similar program. And just this fall, the University of Washington did as well.
The University of Florida, as much as any, is grappling with these issues.
“Florida wants a top-10 university because it’s clear that our economic development is increasingly tied to research,” said Dr. Machen, the president. “The state’s fired up to invest in this university when it sees our projects with the Burnham Institute for Medical Research and Scripps Research Institute.”
The university’s financial situation is unique: it has the lowest tuition of the flagships, $3,206 a year. In addition, the state pays 75 percent to 100 percent of tuition and fees for students with high grades and test scores, including more than 90 percent of freshmen.
Still, the students at the sprawling Gainesville campus, with its historic buildings, lawns and lush vegetation, are so affluent that those who must work to help support themselves are sometimes put off by the fancy cars, the stylish clothes and what they see as a sense of entitlement around them.
“The way they dress, what they talk about, the ‘I drive this, I drive that,’ it gets annoying,” said Angela Momprevil, a sophomore whose parents, Haitian immigrant business owners, did not attend college.
Dr. Machen said that when he became president of the university in 2004, he was troubled to discover that the average student’s family income was about $100,000.
“That bothered me because public education is supposed to be a ladder to success,” Dr. Machen said. “We don’t want to be an elitist institution. We want to be a mirror of society.”
Ever since, he said, he has struggled to balance the quest for higher rankings with the push to serve minority and low-income students. Two of the university’s efforts, the tuition surcharge and a new program for low-income students, could almost stand as the yin and yang of his agenda.
Dr. Machen said the university needed the surcharge to supplement its inexpensive tuition and bring in 200 new faculty members.
“How can I tell parents that the education their children can get here is on a par with Michigan or North Carolina,” he said, “when my student-teacher ratio is 21 or 22 to 1, and Michigan’s is 15 to 1, Chapel Hill’s 14 to 1?”
The surcharge proposal, for next year’s new students, has caused little upset on campus and was endorsed by the Student Senate. But some students had concerns.
“I worry that there will be highly qualified students who won’t be able to pay an extra $1,000,” said Sal Picataggio, a junior. “It’s a fine line. I want it to be prestigious, to be top 10, but I also want it to be more accessible.”
Even as the cost of education at the University of Florida goes up, Dr. Machen is working to bring in more low-income students.
“We found a significant number of accepted students, from the families of the working poor, who didn’t come because they didn’t have the money to pay the costs,” he said. “Loans weren’t attractive to them, and we wanted them here.”
So this fall, the university started a program covering the full cost of college, living expenses included, for students from families with incomes under $40,000, if neither parent went to college. The program also attracted more minority students, helping to raise the proportion of blacks among this year’s freshmen to more than 13 percent, from about 10 percent in the two previous years.
“It turns out that using ‘first generation in the family to go to college’ is a pretty good surrogate for diversity,” Dr. Machen said.
The university is also cutting back merit aid. For years, Gainesville paid dearly to attract National Merit scholars, the students who scored highest on the Preliminary SAT exams. Scholars from out of state pay no tuition at the University of Florida and receive an additional $38,000 over four years.
As a result, the school has drawn hundreds of merit scholars, sometimes nearly as many as Harvard. But next fall, the amount of those awards will be cut to $17,000 for out-of-staters.
“It gave us a kind of bragging rights,” Dr. Machen said, “but it didn’t help in the world of our peers, because they knew we were buying them.”
This is higher-education code: peer ratings are the largest component of the U.S. News & World Report rankings, so anything that does not impress other educators is not likely to help the rankings.
Manny A. Fernandez, chairman of the board at the University of Florida, talks as frankly as Dr. Machen about rankings.
“I want to be on the cocktail-party list of schools that people talk about, because that influences the decisions of great students and great faculty,” Mr. Fernandez said. “I don’t apologize for trying to get the rankings up, because rankings are a catalyst for changes that improve the school.”