Flagship Universities Going Rogue

With support from their state governments dwindling, some state flagship universities are seeking greater autonomy.

Among the schools clamoring for more freedom are the University of Oregon, Louisiana State and University of Wisconsin, where my mother earned her master’s degree decades ago. I read a story in The New York Times yesterday about these universities lobbying for more freedom here:

Public Universities Seek More Autonomy as Financing From States Shrinks

I can appreciate flagships wanting to throw off their shackles when states are underfunding them, but with a diminished state presence I worry about what will happen to the public mission to educate the students within their borders.  I think flagships would be more likely to step up their efforts to attract wealthier students from inside and outside their own states.

I had to laugh when I read a quote by the University of Wisconsin chancellor Carolyn A. Martin, who insisted that the flagship would remain true to its public mission if it obtained the freedoms it sought. “Faculty, staff, alumni and students here are 100% committed to the Wisconsin idea, the nearly 100-year-old idea that the boundaries of the university extend to the boundaries of the state.”

Gee, if what Martin is saying is true, I wonder why 37% of Wisconsin’s latest freshmen class came from outside the Badger State?

Why Flagships Love Rich Students

You may be wondering why I suggest that greater flagship autonomy would lead to even wealthier students attending their schools. Last year I wrote a blog post about why flagships love rich students. Here is an excerpt:

Nearly one out of every three students who attends a flagship state university is affluent.

Thirty percent of students at these top universities have parents with incomes in the top 20% of all American households. This is just one of the findings of a study from the Education Trust, which is a nonprofit that promotes education opportunities for all.

The Education Trust has been trying to guilt premiere state universities into accepting more lower-income students for years, but it hasn’t been working. When the Education Trust released a damning report on the practices of flagship universities in 2006, the statistics were equally grim.

State university flagships are spending nearly the same amount of money on their wealthiest students as they are on the poorest ones. In 2007, the typical low-income student received about $4,900 in aid from his or her school. The average rich student received nearly $4,200.

Motivated by College Rankings

What is the motivation for this institutional behavior? Here’s a biggie:  state universities want to inch up in US News’ college rankings. If flagships can attract (buy) affluent students with high SAT and ACT scores and GPAs,  they’ve got a better chance with the college rankings.

In an interview in Inside Higher Ed, the Kati Haycock, Education Trust’s president, had this to say about the behavior of many flagships:

These institutions are wealthy institutions. They have lots of dollars to use for student financial aid, and what they choose to do with that money says a lot about what they care about. And they’re choosing to use it not on students who cannot afford to go to school without that support, but on students who would go to college no matter what.

If you’d like to learn how to take advantage of this flagship phenomenon, read my previous college blog posts:

5 Ways to Cut Tuition at Out-of -State Universities

Public University Bargains for Affluent Students

Why State Flagship Universities are Rejecting More Students

Lynn O’Shaughnessy is the author of The College Solution and she also writes a college blog for CBSMoneyWatch. Follow her on Twitter.

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