Visit Modern Campus

The Mid-Term: Key Challenges for Public Higher Education Over the Next Four Years

The EvoLLLution | The Mid-Term: Key Challenges for Public Higher Education Over the Next Four Years
The array of challenges and obstacles facing public college and university leaders are imposing and growing, but they present opportunities for innovation and transformation if approached with the right mindset.

Over the next four years, a series of dynamics will challenge the ability of public colleges and universities to advance their missions of providing affordable college opportunities, improving student success, stimulating economic growth through research and workforce development, and addressing the diverse needs of communities and states. The health of public universities depends on campus stakeholders recognizing and adapting to a complex web of external economic, social, demographic, political and technological developments affecting these institutions. Accurately predicting these changes can be difficult—many economists in 2013 would have failed to correctly forecast the economic tides of the last four years, and few political scientists would have correctly envisioned today’s unique political circumstances.

However, the most dominant trends affecting state universities are unlikely to be reversed or significantly mitigated in the next four years. These include the current trajectories of higher education financing, ongoing demographic shifts, concerns over eroding quality, and challenges to public university autonomy. Together, these forces will help shape higher education over the next four years, and institutional and state responses will influence the long-term direction of public higher education.

1. Adapting to Volatile—and Depleted—State Budgets

The next four years will bring continued difficulties in securing the state funding necessary to provide high-quality, affordable college opportunities. Slow economic growth and low commodity prices in many states will limit available tax revenues while escalating Medicaid expenditures and funding of other state functions crowd out higher education spending. With GOP strength in states at near 100-year highs, the political appetite for raising new revenue will be limited. The post-recession years have shown modest progress in restoring higher education funding, but per-student state funding remains far below pre-recession levels.

This ebb and flow of public higher education funding, with a long-term downward trajectory, will lead to escalating tuition, more student debt, and continued calls to overhaul the higher education financing structure over the next four years.

2. Adjusting to Demographic Realities

Demographic changes over the next four years are relatively easy to predict, but it is difficult to anticipate institutional responses. Lawmakers chartered many public universities decades—or even centuries—ago to meet state and local needs of their time. The challenge for higher education leaders today is to mold that legacy system to fit the needs of states, communities and students today. For example, in parts of the Northeast and Midwest, there is excess capacity at some public universities due to shrinking pools of graduates from local high schools. At some institutions, enrollments declined nearly 40 percent from 2009 to 2016. This has led to a small but growing number of campus mergers, with more merger discussions anticipated over the next four years. The intensity of competition for students in these regions will likely increase and institutions will get more entrepreneurial to distinguish themselves in the marketplace. In the fast-growing South and West, meanwhile, there is the opposite trend: Due to state budget cuts, there are not enough seats at some public universities. The key questions over the next four years for institutions in these regions are whether lawmakers will fund enrollment growth and how institutional leaders will respond to state budget limitations.

3. Maintaining Quality

Maintaining quality at public universities will remain a top-tier concern over the next four years. With student debt levels capturing national headlines, college affordability has been at the forefront of state and federal policy discussions. Many governors and legislators have opted to negotiate with university officials by promising additional funding in exchange for tuition freezes or tuition increase caps. By comparison, there has been little discussion about the health of the institutions and their capacity to provide high-quality educational experiences and pursue research opportunities. In Louisiana, for example, sharp reductions in state funding over the last decade has led to officials noting increases in class sizes, fewer research grants, and program closures. Similarly, Wisconsin lawmakers have frozen tuition and made deep cuts to public higher education, leading to fewer courses, bigger class sizes, and cuts in services.

While quality degradation is not easily discernable and does not capture the attention of tuition increases, it remains central to ensuring that students have access to the resources necessary to succeed in college and have educational experiences that lead them to be productive members of the workforce and leaders in their communities.

4. Protecting Institutional Autonomy

Over the next four years, more public university leaders will confront the challenge of balancing responsiveness to policymakers while insulating academic policy from politics. Public universities have complex, dynamic and place-specific relationships with their state governments. As state-funded entities, public universities need to be responsive to the demands of policymakers and the public. However, public universities are not regular state agencies, like a department of motor vehicles or corrections. Public university faculty need to have the autonomy to pursue lines of inquiry that may not have immediate or obvious state economic benefits, express beliefs that may not align with the values of state policymakers or the public, and pursue the truth without fear of political reprisal.

Lawmakers in several states have attempted to breach the firewall between the campus and state government by asserting authority on academic policy, which can undermine the institutional legitimacy of public universities and threaten quality. This includes attacks on tenure and shared governance, legislative attempts to influence faculty hiring, and pressure to remove certain courses from the course catalog. Together, these efforts could have a chilling effect on the foundational mission of public universities as venues for free inquiry that challenge the existing orthodoxies of the time through robust research and scholarship in pursuit of the truth and advancement of knowledge.


The next four years will present a host of new and old challenges for public university leaders. The primary goals, however, will be the same: Maintain affordable access to high-quality college opportunities, increase student success, and address the ever-changing needs of communities and states. How will university leaders respond to these myriad challenges as they pursue their goals? Stay tuned.

Author Perspective: