While Harvard and Princeton are pulling the plug from their early admission programs to be fair to students of all economic classes, University of Florida (UF) President Bernie Machen is seeking to set tuition for his university, making it even harder to afford education at the state flagship university. While 90% of UF students are currently receiving the Bright Futures scholarship, many would be priced out if he gets his wish. Initiatives of tuition increases start with a noble attempt that scholarships for the needy will be also increased while the middle class parents are left with more than a pinch in their wallets.
The money generated with higher tuition may be used to hire more faculty, but that is no guarantee that class sizes would be reduced. This is mainly because many research universities misuse their research university label - the label is generally considered permission to make university a profit-making research laboratory that garners as many research grants as possible, and spends large resources for licensing and commercializing its findings.
I am personally a categorical and strong advocate of conducting research as without it we would stay stagnant in our knowledge base, but when it is done to the near exclusion of the main mission of a research university, it makes me doubt the true intentions of its leaders.
What is the true mission of a research university? Peter Drucker, considered the founding father of the study of management, puts it best, “The great educational needs of tomorrow are not on the research side, but on the learning side.” And the biggest consumer of this learning side is the undergraduate, says Frank Rhodes, past president of Cornell University and the author of the must read book for all research university leaders - The Creation of the Future: The Role of the American University. Without the undergraduate, a research university would not exist.
And I say that if you are going to ask undergraduates to pay more at the tuition pump, they need to get their money’s worth not just in terms of reduced class sizes, but retention programs, one-on-one advising, more full time tenure track faculty in the classroom, and avenues for individualized research experiences.
Are there success stories among public universities that have been allowed to set their tuition? Of the 75 flagship public universities in the nation, Clemson University (disclaimer – I am an alumnus) charges the eighth largest tuition of $9,400 per year. Ten years ago, tuition at Clemson University was just $3,100 per year. Seventy percent of the extra revenue has gone to basic cost increases and state budget cuts, but the rest has been used wisely. They are now ranked in the top 50 in US News and World report because they have kept their focus on in-state students, ensured diversity of student body, revised the undergraduate liberal arts requirements to modern needs and put more full time faculty in the classroom, while vastly improving the quality and depth of their research programs.
So before any tuition setting powers are given to a university, plans for the use of the revenues generated should not only be clearly delineated, but also be closely watched while they are implemented. Most importantly tuition increases should not be used as a substitute for state budget cuts (see how the lottery money is used in Florida; Bright Future scholarships may be the only bright spot of the lottery). Only then, Florida will become an educational hub of higher learning.