New England's higher ed buffeted by challenges

The six-state New England region contains the largest endowment of institutions of higher learning in the United States. And at no time in its considerable history is the nurturing of this endowment under greater challenge than now and in the decade to come.

The Florida-size area, with 177 private and 86 public two- and four-year colleges, includes a majority of the Ivy League campuses in America, complete state university and junior college systems, professional schools over a century old, and major religious universities and colleges.

These schools represent the principal source for development and exploitation of what has been said is the only natural resource in a region "short of soil and even shorter of minerals" -- its well-educated people.

A discussion of these institutions begins with their common concern:

* Soaring operating costs where long winters and high heating bills consume an increasing percentage of the budget.

* Soaring tuition costs that collide with middle-class limits of affordability.

* A joint study by the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education which projects an 18 to 40 percent decline in New England enrollment from 1986 to 1995 in the traditional 18-to-22-year age group.

* How to secure and retain good-quality faculty, especially in the sciences and engineering, where business can offer better salaries.

* Increased government regulation and a greater dependence on the political process for state and federal funding.

* Continued debate about the value of a college degree and the equality of access to it. The private component

With registrars at private colleges on the spot to fill the projected 20 to 40 percent 10- year decline in undergraduate enrollment, a key concern of traditionalists is that enrollments may be boosted by offering vocational training.

Resisting this temptation, or more aptly, responding to it in the best interests of the institution without compromising its academic integrity, is forcing private four-year colleges and universities to redefine what it is that makes them unique.

"Managing decline while maintaining their traditional roles as the custodians of quality" will be the challenge of the '80s, says Frank A. Tredinnick Jr., executive vice- president of AICUM (the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities in Massachusetts).

Some kind of "core curriculum" must not be sacrificed to an "opportunistic curriculum." Giant Harvard's strong retrenchment on basic writing and math competency has set the direction.

"Careful market analysis targeting the kinds of students and the needs of these students in light of what the institution can do and then incorporating both in the traditions of the institution is one way to respond," states John Hoy, executive director of the New England Board of Higher Education. (NEBHE is a regional coordinating council established with congressional consent by the six new England governors in 1955, and serves as a data base for New England.)

Private four-year liberal arts schools in rural areas of New England are clearly the "most vulnerable institutions" in the forthcoming crunch, says Jeremy Ingpen, assistant director of research for NEBHE. With just under 80 percent of their operating revenues coming from tuition, their prospects for survival are the most pressing.

Lack of urban centers to market special programs or expand adult education courses is a real liability for these private two- and four-year schools. The two biggest factors in determining the success of continuing education programs, and this is true for the new two-year community colleges as well, are cost and geographic proximity.

One response is for smaller colleges to merge or to share facilities on a regional basis, Carl J. Gilbert, president of AICUM, says. Citing as one example the successful merger of Boston College Law School and Newton College of the Sacred Heart in Massachusetts, he is confident that "the private sector can respond adequately and quickly to what the student wants."

But mergers and regionalism could mean fewer jobs, which undermines faculty support for the idea, says Dr. John Blasi, a consultant for the Middle States Accreditation Association and academic vice-president of Onondaga Community College in Syracuse, N.Y. "Regionalism works for libraries, rarely for teachers ," he says.

Changing the role of government funding away from aid to public institutions and toward aid to individual students is another possibility. The State of Vermont, via its Vermont Student Assistance Corporation, already has such a program in place. Funds can be used by Vermont students for either private or public tuition, both in and out of state. Some 4,500 grants out of a potential 10,000 that average $700 to $800 have already been processed for next year.

The Rev. J. Donald Monan, SJ, president of Boston College and former chairman of AICUM, sees a need for society first to think through the role of government in higher education. Declining numbers warrant a reassessment of the role of government in the conduct of higher education.

"The fundamental question facing all people is to ask wherein human happiness lies," he states, "and it is one of the questions that private institutions are obliged to answer. It is perhaps their most distinctive contribution to our society, and I hope our society continues to urge us to assist students in answering it."

Fr. Monan makes a case for the continued value of the traditional liberal arts degree in the next decade. The decline in the number of 18-to-22-year-olds cuts two ways, he says.

"Can businesses be as selective in the specialty degrees they require," he asks, "when they will be facing the same 30 to 40 percent decline in potential employees that colleges will have already faced?"

The public component

Public higher education (86 schools) is relatively new in New England (the bulk of the system was built after 1950) and, whether the comparison is valid or not, is thought not to have distinguished itself in comparison with the private colleges and universities of the region.

Unlike land-grant colleges and the large state university systems of the Midwestern and Western states, public institutions must be considered by a set of criteria that educators say are unique to the region. At the first regional assembly of New England Public Colleges and Universities, sponsored by NEBHE, the following issues for the coming decade were raised:

* A wide variation in the way the six New England states fund and administer public higher education mitigates against any regional plan of comprehensive financing at this time unless significant political changes occur.

* State budgets will be monitored strictly during the coming years, making it hard for higher education to increase its share of tax revenues. Yet, as enrollment declines, it is almost inevitable that the publicly funded institutions will turn to legislatures for support.

* It is highly unlikely that public two- and four-year colleges and universities will be allowed to go "bankrupt." Consolidation or termination of varying programs within given state systems is much more likely.

* Inflation and energy costs will continue to outstrip allocations to public higher education.

* Public colleges bear the burden of educating the entire spectrum of a diverse society, from remedial programs in math and English to specific vocational programs.

* The purchaser of the services of public higher education (the taxpayer) is not the consumer (the student) of those same services. Meeting the demands of this dual constituency hampers coordinated planning.

* Not only will the supply of in-state students from the traditional college-age group be cut back, but also the supply of out-of-state students from the Eastern Seaboard will be reduced.

* Two-year community colleges have the fastest-growing enrollment in the public sector.

Laura Clausen, chancellor of the Massachusetts Board of Higher Education, says the most critical areas for public higher education are how to fund these institutions and how best to utilize their services systemwide.

"Higher education is being redefined, and for the public interest we must have a council to dictate the missions of our institutions," she says. "If there is to be contraction because of declining enrollment, it must be contraction with quality. Before we ask how many seats will be filled we have to know what kind of seat we are filling."

But quality cannot mean a return to the ivory tower, she adds. The value of a college degree is no longer self-evident, and catchwords like "access" (open enrollment) and "utility" (job training) must be clearly spelled out.

A major problem the public sector faces is the tension between college administrators without budgetary authority and state legislatures who don't want to give up the power of the purse. Massachusetts state Sen. Gerard D'Amico says that legislatures "want the good publicity when a new building goes up and a central organization toward which they can direct complaints about policies and programs when the publicity is bad."

State Rep. Louise Swainbank, chairwoman of Vermont's Higher Education Planning Commission, says: "The public is expecting more from its investment than it is receiving. Institutions of higher education must guard against excessive preoccupation with self-preservation and concern themselves with the concerns of whom they serve."

NEBHE's Mr. Hoy asks, "How can the picture of declining enrollment for higher education be reconciled with the needs of the region's expanding economy, particularly the expanding high-technology economy?" Citing the shortfall of qualified personnel for the high-tech industry, the heir to New England's past shipping and textile industries, he concludes, "The private sector which is supporting the public sector in higher education will demand a productive labor pool."

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